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.


William G

The differences lie in [perceived] anonymity.

Andrew

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

Area Man

We feel invincible in our machines.

But then we're rendered powerless by traffic.

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

Brian S

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.

Phil

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.

Jamie

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.

Brian

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

Chris Haines

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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Sally

I was always an incredibly patient driver. I was usually the one calming down other people in the car with me who would get angry even when they weren't the ones driving. But I recently moved to a new city and a new job and now I spend at least an hour in the car each day, surrounded by incredibly aggressive drivers. No one uses turn signals or leaves a safe following space or checks their rear-view mirror before simply sliding over 3 lanes at once. And I have turned into a monster, screaming and yelling and tailgating cars so that no one cuts in front of me so that I have to hit the brakes.

I've been trying to return to my former calm self by listening to NPR podcasts and trying to distract myself from the insanity around me. But I think that road rage is a contagious disease. I'm trying to set a good example, using turn signals more than necessary and keeping my speed down. But I have very little hope that it will do any good.

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J

You can have plenty of remorse for the woman who was killed and still question the necessity of closing the freeway for four hours during ruch hour. His statement that "people act based on how they are affected" is certainly true, but is that entirely because of selfishness, or because information about why another person is doing what they're doing isn't available?

People may behave differently behind the wheel because their ability to communicate with other drivers is pretty much limited to what they can do with their car, horn or finger, whereas in person they have much greater ability to determine the reason for a given behavior and assess its validity.

William G

Brian (c#4), the only reason Forrest Griffin says that is because he could probably win just about any fight he encountered. So he's saying that he has the right to act out in road rage, but nobody else does (toward him), because they couldn't (or wouldn't) back it up if they got out of the car.

Alex K

@Jamie

ditto. Very good read. Another good point is we typically dehumanize others when they're in a car (i.e. I was hit by a truck, not I was hit by a man driving a truck).

John Langlois

Almost all technology is designed to "minimize the time it takes" to accomplish something. We are bombarded by those marketing claims all day. Then when something goes awry and it TAKES LONGER, that works against our conditioned expectations.

Add to that the lack of basic civility in our society a whole generation is learning to communicate through devices which add that layer of distance and you have just two reasons that driving is no longer fun.

Kirilius

When you drive, you sit relatively isolated from the outer world in a shell called a car. This shell gives you a sense of protection and anonymity similar to that when you are surfing the Internet. For example while I am commenting under this blog I know that very few people are in a position to track down my physical location and uncover my real identity (not that I am trying to hide it in this case). This might make me feel less constrained by the common social norms that I observe in my person-to-person communication. For example what will happen if I insult some other blog reader because I don't agree with what they wrote? Probably nothing! The feeling is precisely the same when you are driving a car.
This is one reason. A second, probably more powerful reason is the relationship between you and the Internet (you and the car/road/traffic). This relationship is very personal. Again, when I am using the Internet I perceive the other parties in the communication as some abstract entities, which are “less human” than if I saw them in person. An opponent in a public forum can be seen no differently than a jammed printer or non-responsive keyboard. And we know what usually happens to jammed printers and non-responsive keyboards ;-) It is not that people are that bad to other people, it is the DEHUMANIZING that occurs when Internet stands between people.
It is the same with driving. When you drive, you typically have a goal, e.g. go home, go to work, go to the mall, etc. I would argue that in 99% of the situations driving is a chore, a necessary evil that you have endure in order to get to work, provide food, etc. Therefore you want to get it done as quickly as possible with less hassle. Everything on the road: other cars, road signs, traffic lights, police, pedestrians, police, etc. becomes and obstacle to the driver. And because the driver has this false sense of anonymity, he/she tends to react to the obstacles as if they were non-human.

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Fritz Mills

I would agree that it reflects selfishness. Two observations: I read once about a study done in a parking lot of a bix box store or a mall (I don't remember which). In any event, what they found is that drivers who get in their cars to leave the parkinig lot take more time to leave their spot if another car is waiting for the spot than if no other car is waiting.

The second observation is something I've noticed over the years: if I am driving behind someone in the left lane, they tend to drive more slowly when there is no way for me to get around them. However, when a situation opens up where I could, if I choose, move to the right lane and go around them, they will speed up until that opening no longer exists. Then they will slow back down. Weird behavior, but reproducible.

Karen

I'd like to know how to make a clear and friendly acknowledgement of officers in situations like that -- just to try and counter the rudeness officers get from dumb people. In a neutral, neighborhood-sized situation, I like to wave or say thanks. On the highway, I worry that a wave would be mistaken for one of the more common hand gestures, and a thumbs-up seems _really_ inappropriate at an accident scene.

Jordan B

I think this story relates to Dan Ariely's work on cheating. Road rage and angry emails/blog posts rarely have consequences because they are removed from reality (as the stock market is removed from actual cash). Because of this separation people do things they normally wouldn't do if they were face to face (yell at the police, make bad trades, etc.). People know they can get away with more because the risk of consequences are much less and so they push it. It's an unfortunate scenario...

LadyPolitik

This is why we should all use public transportation! Instead, it'll be easier to deal with only five or ten minutes of walkers' rage.

Andrew

About 15 years ago I was on a BART train that apparently ran over someone at West Oakland station during the evening commute. We were directed to go to the front car of the train, then to get off the train. As I got off the train, I noticed a woman kneeling on the platform, screaming/wailing and attempting to see beneath the front of the train. It was extremely disturbing, to say the least. We all went up to the other side of the platform, and after about 10 minutes, a train came along to pick us up. All anyone could talk about was how inconvenient the delay was! I wanted to shout, "Look, people, you're going home 10 minutes late. Somebody else is going to the morgue. Have some perspective."

Mike B

You really shouldn't try to defend closing the road fir hours due to a fatal accident. Same thing goes for when a train hits someone they close the whole line for hours delaying thousands of innocent commuters. Why can't people realize that THE ROADS ARE FOR THE LIVING. Laws need to be passed that make re-opening the roadway or railway after an accident the foremost priority during certain peak or daylight hours with ALL other considerations being secondary.

What's worse is where people are involved in a minor collision and they stop in the middle of the road! Every driving manual clearly informed people to clear the highway, yet I'll always find a pair of bozos who don't.

This brings up the point that the anonymity of driving allows one to act more aggressively, it more often allows someone to behave incompetently without any fear of having to deal with the cost they impose on others due to their brain dead driving.

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