Why Does Driving Bring Out the Worst in People?

How is a car like the Internet?

A reader named William Mack writes in with an interesting observation and question. It echoes a conversation I recently had with a friend who had been on the receiving end of some road rage — in a New York City parking garage, of all places. The driver behind her simply couldn’t wait for her to pull in, so he rammed her.

William’s note also brought to mind an observation that Levitt has made in the past: the same person who might flip you off while ensconced in his or her car would almost certainly never do the same while passing you on a sidewalk. A parallel observation: I’ve often found that people who can be exceedingly nasty via e-mail or blog are often fairly civil once you get together face-to-face.

Anyway, here’s what William has to say. I’m sure he’d love to know your thoughts.

I am a police officer in a relatively small city in the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex. I have been a cop for almost 12 years and spent 4 of them in the Traffic Division. Due to the weather, our Traffic Division officers ride motorcycles on a year-round basis. My job as a traffic officer was, obviously, enforcement of traffic law and “working” traffic accidents. The geographical location of my city, nestled right between Dallas and Fort Worth, right above Arlington, provides for tremendous traffic flow. The main highway, State Highway 183, connects the two major cities and, in my city, sees approximately 1 million cars a day. As you can imagine, there is no shortage of traffic violators and traffic collisions.

Over the years as a traffic officer and police officer, I have developed several theories on humanity. I have no statistical data to base this on, for this is just one man’s opinion. People, in general, are selfish. I think that, more often than not, people act based on how they are affected. I know that is very generalized and probably a little mean, but I think that people act based upon how they are directly affected. If they are, they care, sometimes too much. If not, they don’t [care], sometimes not at all. For example, during one particularly hot day in July in the early morning hours, an elderly female wandered onto the freeway and was struck by a vehicle traveling over 60 miles per hour.

As you can imagine, she was killed instantly. The freeway was quickly shut down (at 6 a.m.) and the accident reconstruction began (which is procedural and not my nor my supervisor’s decision). This usually takes between two and four hours. You would not believe the number of people, who, because they were forced to exit the freeway after hours in gridlock, felt it prudent and necessary to yell obscenities at the lowly police officer. As if it was my fault. All this while he is standing next to a blood-soaked white sheet. Those particular individuals had absolutely no remorse for the person lying dead on the freeway, nor for any of the other people stuck in traffic, nor for the poor cops who were out there in 110-degree weather!

What the hell is that?! And that’s not saying anything about those jerks, you know those guys, the ones who ride the shoulder of the freeway past the lines of cars waiting just because they don’t want to [wait]. The aggressive drivers, the super-aggressive drivers, the tailgaters, the speed demons, the road-ragers. I guess the point is to give you some of my insight and to ask: what is it with people and driving that makes them show their true nature? Or is it a behavior relegated to their drive? Why is it that when people are late for work, they drive 100 miles-per-hour? Does this really get them there faster? (When taking into account that they still have to negotiate side streets with traffic signals and all that stuff.) Why is it that driving, especially to and from work, brings out the worst in people? Or is it a select few? Maybe I’ll never get the answers, but I figured I’d share.

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  1. William G says:

    The differences lie in [perceived] anonymity.

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  2. Andrew says:

    People are inherently bad.
    Romans 3:10; 5:12

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  3. Area Man says:

    We feel invincible in our machines.

    But then we’re rendered powerless by traffic.

    It’s the intersection of those emotions that causes friction.

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  4. Brian S says:

    Forrest Griffin, a UFC fighter, in his book states strongly decries people who will behave toward you behind the wheel in a manner that they would not duplicate in a more direct personal setting. I have to echo this sentiment, although it’s an especially convenient belief when your life is centered around physical imposition of will.

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  5. Phil says:

    In both cases the person, driver/internet user, is basically anonymous, and almost never has to see any consequences from their actions. They can be as nasty as they want, and no one can really call them out on it to their face.

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  6. Jamie says:

    This is all very neatly discussed in the book ‘Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)’ by Tom Vanderbilt. I’m part way through it now – a very interesting read.

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  7. Brian says:

    Check out Tom Vanderbilt’s book, Traffic. He digs in to the research around human behavior and driving.

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  8. Chris Haines says:

    Why do people get angry in traffic? Because they are the (self-perceived) victims of theft. Whomever has slowed them down has stolen their time. They are reacting with the same emotions you would have if someone broke into your house and stole something valuable from you. And what is more valuable than your time?

    Sure it is wrong to endanger lives because you are upset or late. And it is very impolite to yell at a police officer doing his job and following an apparently necessary procedure. But far too often I have seen bad drivers slow up traffic because they don’t appear to know what they are doing. Driving slow in the left lane, not signaling, slowing down to look a crawl to look at street signs (pull over and look at your map!), etc. I think these are the worst drivers on the road and an epidemic in North American cities. Go drive in Europe, especially Italy or Germany. They drive wit a purpose there. They lay down the horn when people don’t drive with a purpose. But things seem to move a hell of a lot better to me.

    Maybe we need a certain economics professor and journalist to do a study about traffic flow in Europe vs the US and see if there is indeed a problem here.

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