On Bad Drivers

Some days I face a long commute. The repetition engages my dorsolateral striatum, cerebellum, and basal ganglia, thereby freeing up my prefrontal cortex (the centre of self-regulation and thought) and every now and again I take a break from my carpool karaoke to think about people’s behaviour.

Often I ended up thinking about people’s driving behaviour. It’s hard not to, because I am often cut off. I drive a small car, in a non-threatening colour, which I do believe makes me a less threatening option to cut off for aggressive drivers – “aggressive” which here means someone who doesn’t respect the normalized (“polite”) driving protocol.

It turns out lots of other people think about this too from the school of Traffic Psychology. This school of thought argues that we are not simply plagued by a subset of delinquent drivers, but we are subject to cognitive roadblocks (heehee – get it?) and environmental factors that systematically influence driving on the road.

Check this out: https://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2013/aug/19/driving-road-neuroscience-psychology

Most interesting to me is point number 4 – where cars can be equated to status and impact aggressive driving behaviour. I notice that when I drive my car I am frequently cut off, but when I drive my parents’ car – a newer, bigger, redder SUV, people cut me off far less. My inner social scientist now wishes to set up an experiment, but it has already been done for me. Research by McGarva and Steiner (2000) showed that aggression is influenced by perceptions of ‘status’ as judged simply on the vehicles involved. Thank you, academia, for basically telling me I need to get a new car…

Can the behavioural sciences do anything to improve the state of affairs out there on the road?

I have a few suggestions:

  • Even though you might feel especially vengeful after that pick-up truck cut you off, stick to being polite. Although driving is a right bestowed upon us by the government agencies who award our licence and enforce traffic rules, it’s also a system and a relationship between all drivers on the road. There is an accepted system of social norms – sub-rules that won’t get you a ticket but will annoy other drivers when broken – and anyone who breaks the social norms is often considered a jerk (or worse). In non-repeated relationships, we are unable to directly punish infractors of social norms with the usual slew of behaviour-modification techniques (communication, shame, etc.). As a victim you have two options: a) take revenge to other drivers in general and start breaking the social norms yourself or b) continue to uphold the system. Path a) might cause other drivers to also forego all the rules, as when we see everyone breaking rules it becomes the new normal. Path b) actually has a chance of improving the situation in the exact same way. Continuing to be polite (or avoiding being impolite) upholds the system. Although we’ll never be able to fully limit aggressive drivers, it’ll at least stop one more aggressive driver from being on the road (you) and potentially risking the creation of a bunch more. 
  • Let cars in. Stop to let a car turn in front of you. Even if there is a space behind you. In doing so, you are potentially awakening the contagious effect of social cooperation. People often look around them for behavioural cues – that’s where the contagion plays a part. The “pay it forward” philosophy can work both with positive or negative, so I say start paying it forward with letting people in and hope for the best. Many of my friends say that if someone lets them turn into their lane, they often try to do the same for another car later. 
  • Wave. Smile. Research has shown we tend to dehumanize other drivers. The anonymity of cars is powerful. Drivers can feel more comfortable being rude when they are faced with a machine rather than a fellow human being. Break down these facades by waving, smiling, gently honking and ultimately reminding other drivers that you are all in fact humans behind the wheel. Try this technique especially when you need to scoot your way over a few lanes in a traffic jam – it might just get you there quicker.

Driving is a complex system of coordination and for the most part it runs remarkably well. Let’s try to make it a little bit more friendly and polite.

Stay safe out there!



Chambers, Chris. (2013, August 19) Bad Driving: what are we thinking? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2013/aug/19/driving-road-neuroscience-psychology Fowler, J., & Christakis, N. (2010). Cooperative behavior cascades in human social networks Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0913149107

Lowenstein, L. F. (1997). Research into causes and manifestations of aggression in car driving. Police J., 70, 263.
McGarva, A. R., & Steiner, M. (2000). Provoked driver aggression and status: A field study. Transportation research part F: traffic psychology and behaviour, 3(3), 167-179.

Vrabie, Alina. (2014, October 7) Are Menial Tasks the Secret to Great Achievement? Sandglaz Blog. URL: http://blog.sandglaz.com/are-menial-tasks-the-secret-to-great-achievement/


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