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Aggressive driving behaviour (background paper)

Fourth Road Safety Week (5 - 11 April 2004)

The following paper is a compilation of some of the recent research on aggressive driving behaviour. A reference list appears at the end of the paper.

What is it?

Aggressive driving behaviour takes many forms. Typical aggressive driving behaviours include speeding, driving too close to the car in front, not respecting traffic regulations, improper lane changing or weaving, etc. The list is long. Most people drive aggressively from time to time and many drivers are not even aware when they are doing it.

Aggressive driving is difficult to define because of its many different manifestations but having a clear definition is important for police and legal action against it to succeed. A Global Web Conference on Aggressive Driving Issues organized in Canada in October 2000 offered the following definition “A driving behaviour is aggressive if it is deliberate, likely to increase the risk of collision and is motivated by impatience, annoyance, hostility and/or an attempt to save time.”

According to an EOS Gallup Europe survey on aggressive behaviour behind the wheel concluded in January 2003 the problem is widespread. 66 per cent of respondents in the United States, 65 per cent in the Russian Federation and 48 per cent in the European Union as a whole reported being the victim of aggressive driving behaviour in the previous year. The survey also shows a strong relation between showing aggressive behaviour and being a victim of it: 70 per cent of drivers in the European Union who admitted to showing aggressive behaviour on several occasions claimed to have been subject to it from other drivers.

The survey shows that although not a new phenomena, aggressive behaviour is increasing. When asked if aggressiveness of drivers has increased over the last few years 65 per cent of the respondents in Russia, 75 per cent of the respondents in the EU and 80 per cent of the respondents in the United States agreed.

Forms of aggressive behaviour may vary across countries and continents. Drivers who had been subject to aggressive behaviour in the last year were asked which specific type of aggressive behaviour they had been subject to. 61 per cent of the respondents in the United States replied that they had been aggressively pursued. In the EU 60 per cent replied they had been subject to aggressive flashing of lights and in Russia verbal abuse was the most common reply with 47 per cent. When the same drivers were asked where the last aggressive incident occurred a clear majority, 67 per cent, of Russians replied “in town” whereas in the EU there was a balance between “in-town” and “in non-urban traffic”, both receiving 47 per cent. In the United States the results were similar with 48 per cent replying “in town” and 46 per cent “in non-urban traffic”.

In the EOS Gallup Europe survey an average of 50 per cent of respondents in the EU and 37 per cent in the United States replied that they found it very irritating seeing another driver using a mobile phone. However a recent study from the RAC in the United Kingdom shows that while only 1 in 5 drivers in the United Kingdom admit to using a mobile phone while driving 63 per cent of motorists say that they frequently observe others driving carelessly while using a mobile phone.

Aggressive driving is also bad for the environment. Research at the Flemish Institute for Technological Research in Belgium has shown that aggressive driving during heavy traffic conditions can guzzle up to 40 per cent more fuel. Also the exhaust gases from the aggressively driven cars contained considerably more polluting chemicals and in the case of carbon monoxide the increase was as much as eight times greater than normal.

Aggressive driving is not the same as “road rage”. Cases of road rage are relatively few but may result in extreme violence.

What are the causes of aggressive driving?

There are many different theoretical approaches to aggressive behaviour and none are considered complete explanations. Biological theories consider aggressive behaviour to be innate although specific responses can be modified by experience. In the psychoanalytic tradition the frustration-aggression hypothesis focuses on the role of external factors. Frustrating situations that impede or prevent some form of ongoing goal-directed behaviour are believed to act as a catalyst for aggressive behaviour. Social learning approaches on the other hand argue that aggression is a learned response through observation or imitation of socially relevant others. All these approaches differ in their emphasis but it is generally assumed that aggressive behaviour is the combined result of these factors.

Many psychological factors are at play in aggressive driving and many may prove difficult to control. Human beings are naturally prone to territoriality and have the tendency to view their vehicle as an extension of their personal domain. They feel threatened by other vehicles and respond aggressively or out of an instinct of self- protection.

Driving may also lead some to feel a sense of power behind the wheel which they do not have in their jobs or families, for example, and in some cases may even manifest itself in a “Jekyll and Hyde” effect, where someone normally courteous and polite becomes aggressive when driving.

Man’s natural competitive instinct can also be a factor in aggressive driving. Some drivers respond to being overtaken by another vehicle as a challenge. This, in turn may lead to showing off and racing involving speeds which are well over the speed limit and to drivers making risky overtaking manoeuvres. Another example of competition on the road is drivers who race to get off faster at traffic lights.

More serious still are drivers who try to threaten or punish others for a particular driving behaviour which displeases them. This is also referred to as a “vigilante” attitude and includes such behaviours as driving too close to the vehicle in front, braking suddenly as a warning to the vehicle behind, deliberately blocking the passing lane, using headlights on full beam to punish other drivers, and shouting or making obscene gestures to other drivers.

All these behaviours are exacerbated by the stress and time pressures of modern life. Increasingly crowded and congested roads also lead to feelings of frustration and are responsible for cases of aggressive driving and lack of respect for other drivers such as illegal use of the hard shoulder, changing lanes without indicating, preventing other vehicles from entering a traffic lane. They also lead to anger at slow drivers, for example, and at traffic lights which seem to take too long to change.

Research shows that people who are experiencing aggressive/emotional or angry feelings before getting into their car are more likely to continue this behaviour behind the wheel. Moreover, the use of alcohol and drugs may also increase the likelihood of aggressive driving.

On top of all this, we are bombarded by media portrayals of aggressive driving shown in a fun context such as car chases in films and in children’s video games. Aggressive driving is a learned behaviour. Children learn about aggressive driving from their parents.

What can be done to stop aggressive driving?

There are a number of different means that can be employed to prevent or discourage aggressive driving. Enforcement and education are the most common and results indicate that enforcement efforts should be accompanied by public information campaigns in order to achieve the greatest effect. Increased and more consistent enforcement will bring positive results. Aggressive driving is more likely in situations where drivers feel anonymous as pointed out by R. Novaco in “Roadway aggression” (1998): “Generally, people lose self-restraint when they are not mindful of who they are and of their place in a rule-governed society. Expectations of punishment are diminished, and aggressive impulses are more readily expressed. The chance ‘to get away with it’ can release aggression that would otherwise have been held in check.” A study conducted in 2000 by Wouter and Bos on vehicle data recorders compared the incidence of accidents for vehicles with and without recorders. Results indicate that the use of data recorders resulted in an average accident reduction of 20 per cent.

Red light cameras have been shown to reduce accidents at junctions. Drivers are more likely not to risk crossing on a red light if they know there is a camera. Likewise, speed cameras are effective in reducing incidences of speeding. In April 2000 the United Kingdom Government introduced a scheme to pilot self-funding of speed cameras. The scheme allowed for new speed cameras and more use of existing cameras. A recent evaluation of the scheme shows that the number of drivers exceeding the speed limit at pilot camera sites fell from 55 to 16 per cent and this lead to 35 per cent fewer crashes. Other devices which may be used include cameras to measure adherence to rules regarding distance between vehicles. Variable message speed limit signs can help to control traffic flow and to prevent traffic congestion and the frustration it causes. New technologies such as intelligent speed adaptation have been tested on an experimental basis but have not yet been accepted for widescale application. A recent Swedish study studied the effects of automatic Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) systems in cars which assist drivers in the task of controlling speed and distance to the vehicle ahead. It was shown that lower acceptance of an automatic ACC was associated with a more aggressive driving style in situations where the driver caught up with a slower vehicle.

Another method proposed to combat aggressive driving is the use of telephone numbers to report on the driving of others. This approach has the advantage of making callers feel that they are contributing to solving the problem, and may also help authorities to identify problem spots which can be rectified by infrastructural or other means. In the United States, many regions have introduced the cell phone number 77 for reporting aggressive driving. However there are often different numbers in different states which causes confusion. The AAA in the United States is currently in the process of developing a sign saying “sorry” for drivers to have in their cars.

In the United States also, programmes in which aggressive driving is filmed from another vehicle or even an aircraft have proved effective. Aggressive drivers are then “named and shamed” and confronted with incontrovertible proof of their aggressive driving in court.

The Belgian Road Safety Institute has organised an alternative penalty for this type of traffic offender which does not result in legal action or a police record. The aggressive driver is obliged to attend a 20-hour course with other offenders run by group workers and psychologists . The aim is to make reoffending more unlikely by helping offenders to understand the consequences of their actions and the stimuli which provoked the aggressive behaviour. There would seem to be merit in a psychological approach since psychology plays such a key role in aggressive driving.

Certainly big businesses have a role to play. Transport haulage companies with fleets of vehicles and a large number of drivers on the pay roll should insist on the highest standards from their drivers and encourage this through schemes for reporting bad driving and offering incentives for good driving.

Insurance companies are uniquely placed to offer economic incentives for good driving and more could be done to discourage speeding and other forms of aggressive driving through the leverage of insurance premiums.

Clearly education and driver training are important. Already in schools it is important to make a formal commitment to promote effective road safety education so that appropriate behaviour is fostered from an early age. It is also important to develop links between schools and other agencies such as the police. Courteous, non-aggressive driving should be stressed in initial driving tests. However, continuing driver training is probably necessary since it may only be after the driver has passed his/her test that aggressive driving starts. A problem with passive education of road users is that many believe they are more skilful and better drivers than everyone else so objective risk estimates are often viewed as somewhat irrelevant.

Also the media plays an important role. The media can enhance community awareness and understanding of the causal factors involved in aggressive driving. The media can also support campaigns through responsible, objective reporting and influence societal changes which may lead to a change in aggressive driving behaviour and attitudes. In Italy, the Government allows the mass media to report road fatalities in a “no holds barred” approach with the aim of shocking and scaring.

What can I do as a driver?

Because of the extent of the problem of aggressive driving, increased enforcement and other external measures will only ever have a relatively limited effect. What is needed is the recognition by ordinary drivers of the problem and their resolve to try to curb their own aggressive driving and to show more respect for other road users.

This has to be emphasised in road safety campaigns. Road safety authorities will find challenging and engaging ways of getting this message to drivers. However, each of us in our daily lives can help by recognising our own aggressive driving behaviour and correcting it and by setting a good example of respect for other road users.

Show courtesy to other drivers and avoid actions likely to provoke. Make sure that your driving does not upset others. Always indicate before changing lanes, leave sufficient room before moving back into lane, do not take up more than one parking space, dip your headlights for oncoming vehicles at night, do not block the passing lane for faster drivers, etc.

Try to avoid driving when you are feeling stressful, emotional or angry. Relax behind the wheel and be patient. Try to be more tolerant of other drivers. Use your horn very sparingly. Aggressive use of the horn can aggravate others. Do not assume that aggressive driving by others is deliberate or aimed at you.

Plan ahead and allow plenty of time for your journey. Avoid getting into the situation where you are racing to get to an important meeting and taking risks on the road just to gain a few minutes.

Do not react to other drivers who are looking for conflict or challenging you. Pull over and let them pass. Do not engage in eye contact. Keep your hands on the steering wheel and do not make hand or other gestures which may show your irritation or frustration with their behaviour.

References

“Aggressive behaviour behind the wheel”, EOS Gallup Europe, 2003.

“Aggressive driving is emotionally impaired driving”, Leon James and Diane Nahl, University of Hawai, 2000.

“An educational programme for aggressive drivers”, Félix et al., Belgian Road Safety Institute (IBSR-BIVV), 2000.

“A review of the literature on aggressive driving research”, Leo Tasca, Ontario Advisory Group on Safe Driving Secretariat: Road User Safety Branch, 2000.

“Cross-Cultural Models of Road Traffic Accident Risk: Personality, Behavioural, Cognitive and Demographic Predictors” by McNally, I.M and Stone, M., University of Central Lancashire, Preston, UK, 2001.

“Driver aggression study”, Automobile Association, Group Public Policy Road Safety Unit, United Kingdom, 1996.

“Driving with Automation. The association between subjective opinions of automated in-vehicle systems and quantitative measures of driving performance” by Oskarsson, P.A., 2002.

“Go green, save cash - stay cool in a jam”, Daily Telegraph, 25 October 2000.

RAC Report on Motoring: Mobile Phones, 2003.

“Roadway aggression”, R. Novaco, Institute of Transportation Studies Review, University of California, 1998.

“Slow Down”. The Pledge to Drive Safely Research Series, Report No. 2, Brake, 2002.