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.


By definition, I would think, speeding gets you to your destination faster than not speeding.

Yet Another Dan

This is part of why motorcyclists call people in cars "cagers". On a motorbike you are exposed and hyper-aware. In a car you are in a tranquil bubble and anything that dares pierce that tranquility is the focus of impotent rage.


I think it is just frustration. It is awful to be stuck in traffic with a young child alone waiting for your pickup from some after school event. You fear for their safety and you really need to get there which is why you left plenty of time for the drive. If there is a time consuming accident or worse- someone did something stupid like walking across a freeway, and you are stuck powerless in traffic, the frustration and pressure is enormous. It drives me nuts and makes me drive like I am crazy.


My sister lives in Texas and when visiting her I've found a "Cowboy Attitude" among some (but certainly not all) residents. With the exception of New Orleans during Mardi Gras, it has the most ungentlemanly gentlemen in the country.

Temperatures exceeding 100º, rising gas prices, and general impatience can all serve to make people pissy as well.

Doug B

Fritz @15:

Is this really weird?

1. I back out more slowly when I am not sure whether the person in my lane is waiting for my spot or not. Plus, they may be in my way, which makes me drive a little more carefully than if my exit path were clear.

2. Again, don't you drive more cautiously (generally, a little slower) in congestion than you do on an uncongested road?

Mike Symons

The drivers in the incident you describe were justifiably mad about this: "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." There is no reason that the incident you described should require shutting down the freeway for this long. With 1,000,000 commuters and a 4 hour delay, the law you enforced resulted in the waste of the approximate hour equivalent of 6 more lives.

Scott H

I would like to also add that many of those selfish individuals disregard posted signs and end up creating a lot of the traffic conditions that upset them. For instance, why do some drive slower in the left lane when the sign clearly says, "stay right except when passing". They are not passing, they are creating congestion. What about when merging from two lanes to one? Are you the person who stays in the left lane and waits to merge at the actual point where the roads merge, or do you quickly move to the right lane and get upset when someone stays in the left? Which is the correct method?


Don't know if this has been mentioned yet, but will camera phones affect this? I know I took a picture of a motorcycle rider who rode in between the lanes (not legal where I live) the other day.

Jason S

I think the driving force behind traffic is the exact same as the driving force behind market efficiency. Think of it this way...you are sitting in traffic and one lane starts to move faster. Now there are two types of people, the ones that jump and have to hurry up and move to the other lane and the ones that sit it out and don't move. Just like in a financial market it evens out so that both lines end up doing about the same, while a couple people may come out ahead one decision or the other, for the most part though they all end up getting there about the same time. This evening out comes from the fact that everyone wants to be that one or two people that actually slip through and get there early or get the great deal on the security.
So why all the anger? Because driving combines tired, agitated people all striving to be that one that gets their faster. You combine that with their ego making them think they deserve to get there, they deserve to not have to deal with this, and they deserve to not be slowed down, and boom!
The reason traffic jams keep happening and get worse is because no one can stand watching the other lane move and get ahead. The same reason they get mad is because they can't stand the idea that someone else is imposing on their will.
The ego is a powerful and scary thing.



My mother always said to know the real character of a person, watch him drive and watch how he treats those "beneath" him such as the maid or the waiter. In these situations, people of character are civil; respectful of differences in ability, education, social standing; patient; have some sort of perspective on what's a big deal and what's not. Today's aggressive driver's are toddlers. They scream and stamp their little feet if so-called bad drivers get in their way. They want their juice box (perfect drivers, no roadwork, no dead pedestrians) and they want it now. I think what they're REALLY angry about is their dead-end jobs, household budgets, rebellious kids, and horrendous commutes. Since they can't scream at their wives, bosses, kids or pets, they terrorize the roadways.


while it's not possible for everyone, not driving is one of the best things i've ever done for myself. that isn't to say i don't still wag my finger at cars as a pedestrian, either. in my opinion, the two things that expose a person for who they really are:

1. the way they react to a practical joke.

2. the way they act behind the wheel of a car.

Ian Kemmish

It's not just driving. As at least one commenter has noted, it happens on the Internet as well. And it's not that far removed from the phenomenon of people on the platform who rush forward as soon as a train door opens, without letting people alight from the train first.

In these situations, we are all exposed suddenly to a large number of strangers. Since we are a social animal, perhaps we feel an urgent need to establish our place in the pecking order in this new crowd as quickly as possible. If we act as if we're at the top and get away with it - well, then we are at the top: I'm the most important person on this road; I'm the smartest person in this chatroom; I"m far more important than the people trying to get off....

Carol Goldstein

Officer Mack:

One reason some drivers in the morning rush may react extremely to a delay is that they are commuting to a job where tardy arrival has potentially severe repercussions. So leave earlier you say. What if the driver's morning involves an elaborate scheme of child care that costs more before a certain hour or making sure an elderly parent has breakfast or other real world scenarios? And then because some cuckoo has wandered out in traffic a couple hours earlier the commuter might lose their job? And add in a little average American sleep deprivation and the only wonder is that there isn't more anxiety expressed as antagonism.

PS Upstanding citizens are not the ones wondering accross Interstates on foot. Sorry. You don't need an elaborate investigation to know that. That law should be modified.


Your character is revealed by what you do when no one is looking -- or when you calculate that the observers will never see you again.

Minnesota Nice

On I-35 North of the Twin Cities in Minnesota the road construction signs read: "Use both lanes - Merge at Construction Zone" You see, up here in the upper midwest, we are considerate - to a fault. Everyone was simply merging into one lane MILES ahead of the construction zone. This of course, made traffic backup further downstream than necessary. MNDOT had to remind everyone to NOT be considerate.


Grab the new-ish book Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. It's fluid, insightful and at times hilarious. To this point you would probably find him to say that being in cars reduces humans to animals; remove our ability to communicate with words and eye contact, strip away our identity and leave us with grunts (honks) and physical action, and road rage is what's left over. Really cool stuff you've probably never considered on the morning commute.

Daniel Howard

Those who are filled with an impotent rage over their own powerlessness feel a lot more powerful and brave when surrounded by a ton of fast-moving steel or the reassuring, warming glow of a computer screen.


Just curious, did the drivers who yelled at you know the cause for the holdup? If you posted a sign on the highway saying, "Delays due to Killed Pedestrian", it is likely you'd get much less rudeness because the drivers would perhaps feel a bit of empathy or remorse.

Therese Saint Clair Wilder

I recently read of the horrific accident in
Britain when a young driver was texting, which led to smashing
into a parked vehicle on the side of the road (which, by the way, had emergency lights flashing). The driver in the parked car was killed. A young victim.
Britain's laws are very strict when it comes to reckless driving, especially when there is a death(death's) involved.
The young driver who survived was given 18 months in prison.
Of course, any accident has to be investigated to find out the true cause of the accident.
Besides enacting tougher laws, a good punishment would
be to confiscate the car and forbid further driving . this would be reserved for drivers that killed or maimed someone.
I would appreciate a legal response to impounding the car.
What if the car belongs to someone else?
We all have to work together for solutions, otherwise
we are all at risk of being maimed or killed.


Andrew Wyld

It's largely not the same point, but I've noticed people drive more carelessly in the wet, when it makes sense to drive more carefully. I think this is because they extend their sense of self to the car and "run out of the rain", if you like.

As for the traffic cop's observations, I'd broadly agree that people have a very poor theory of other people when driving. I think British drivers are more passive-aggressive than aggressive as a whole, but people are very bad at imagining their effect on other drivers.

I'd also say that sometimes people just don't think enough steps beyond their actions; I know a junction where you can only turn right in a short gap when the lights change and people who run the red (preventing this) probably assume they aren't holding anyone up because the lights in the other direction aren't yet green.