Data Project Report: Self-Witnessing of Driving

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AGGRESSIVENESS ON THE ROAD: Driver Behavior in Freeway Traffic Congestion

I. INTRODUCTION: Aggressiveness

When one thinks of freeways, two images usually come to mind:
(1) Speeding above 50 miles per hour and reaching one's destination in half of the time; or
(2) Creeping along at five miles per hour and reaching one's destination in twice the normal time. Image number two (2) depicts driving in freeway traffic congestion during rush hours and road construction times. Driving in traffic is often frustrating and can lead to aggressive behavior in motorists.

A. Background

When driving to and from work, I usually get caught in the rush hours, thus I am frequently stuck in "traffic jams." Traffic is very frustrating for me because I am usually tired and irritable after a long day at work. Many times, I find myself muttering to myself or making a "stink-eye" at another car and wishing bad things upon other drivers. When I am the passenger and observer in a vehicle during traffic congestion, I often forget that I, too, exhibit aggressive behavior just like the person I am riding with. Thus, I am interested in why other drivers and I drive aggressively, especially during traffic jams. What is it that moves motorists to scream, rant, or even shoot at other motorists during traffic on the freeways? Is there a way to identify aggressive characteristics before any dangerous behavior can result? And are there any ways to solve or lessen these problems?

B. Purpose and Method

This report will examine aggression and its causes, focusing on aggressive driver behavior in freeway traffic congestion. Definitions of aggression as well as range, occurrences, and causes will be considered. I will also identify problems as a driver myself, as well as one of many drivers in a traffic jam. Also included are may self-truths which were revealed in my own field observations, and which will be discussed using the Affective, Cognitive, and Sensorimotor levels. My conclusions and library research techniques will follow, along with my afterthoughts about the whole endeavor. Therefore, this report will provide insightful information about aggression on the road, focusing on driver behavior during freeway traffic congestion.


Robert A. Baron defines aggression as "any form of behavior performed with the intention or goal harming another living being who is motivated to avoid harm"(Potkay and Allen, 1986, p. 399). His definition depicts aggression as a behavior and recognizes that true aggression involves the conscious planning and carrying out of a behavior in order to hurt another person who does not want to be hurt. In terms of aggressive behavior in traffic, an example would be trying to force another driver off of the road to get back at him or her for going in front of them.

According to Erich Fromm, there are two types of aggression: (1) biologically adaptive and life-serving; and (2) malignant. The first type is the "impulse to attack or flee when vital interests are threatened" (Montagu, 1976, p. 13). Conversely, the second type is due to humans and their existence. An example of the first type would be when someone follows you too closely and you suddenly brake very hard to scare the driver. Malignant aggression could be typified by cutting another driver off just to get into the faster lane.

Sigmund Freud's idea of aggression theorized that "these instincts of the ego, which serve self-preservation, are identical with the destructive tendencies, and that they are primarily directed toward one's self and only secondarily towards the outer world" (Storr, 1972, p. 17). Freud's "death instinct" idea pertaining to traffic congestion would be when you speed up in order to prevent a car which almost hit you, from getting in front of you.

B. Range and Occurrences

Aggressive driver behavior on the freeways during traffic can range from a silent deathwish to shooting at another motorist. Other types of aggressive traffic behavior are swearing at other drivers, making obscene gestures, and engaging in heated arguments with other drivers.

Occurrences of aggressive driver behavior can be moderate, intermittent, or frequent, for it is hard to measure how may times internal aggressive behavior occurs. External aggression can be observed, but how can the private aggression be measured? Yet, it is a fact that driver aggression in traffic is a common phenomenon, ranging in frequency and levels of danger.


From personal experience, I think that the environment plays a large part in how aggressive a driver has the potential to become. If the weather is very hot and humid, a motorist may be easily frustrated or angered, leading to aggressive behavior. Frank Trippett suggests that one factor may be "the stresses of bumper-to-bumper competition" (1987, p. 18). Another suggestion is that on a clogged roadway, "a driver would find himself hemmed in by pavement and regulations" (Gordon, 1985, p. 9).

Another important determinant of whether or not a person will resort to aggressive behavior is the emotional state of the driver. A motorist who is unhappy, angry, or upset could be more sensitive to threatening driver behavior. Caprara et al (1984) cite irritability and emotional susceptibility as manifesting offensive and defensive tendencies. Impulsive reactions and feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability are "related to the capacity/incapacity to overcome excitement and to react adequately, in both imagined and real situations of danger, offense, and attack" (Caprara et al, 1986, p. 84).

Indeed, safe driving is non-aggressive driving. This is shown in driver manuals, which stress that the key to safe driving is not only physical handling skills, but the "ability to think about what is happening on the road and to act decisively and skillfully to stay out of trouble(Packard, 1974, p. 95).

Personal Traits

As discussed previously, irritability and emotional susceptibility can lead to the occurrence of aggressive driver behavior. Other personal traits could be emotional arousal, a big ego, and hostility. The observational and the imitative capability may also contribute to the display of aggressive road behavior in traffic. If you see a person succeeding in getting through the traffic faster by cutting another off, you might be inclined to imitate that behavior in order to speed up your journey. Bandura and Walters would say that your behavior was the result of not only "shaping, but due also to observational learning (Edmunds and Kendrick, 1980, p. 21).

Edmunds and Kendrick say "Aggression is a response to either frustration or attack, and may be instrumental to the acquisition of an extrinsic reward" (1980, p. 25). They also go on to identify personality traits or variables of aggressiveness. Some of these include: temperament, impulsiveness, extroversion, emotionality, neuroticism, and anxiety.

By studying other popular and well-noted personality theorists, they cite four major variables: (1) sexual dimorphism; (2) social class; (3) the observational and instrumental learning history of the individual; and (4) the personality setting (1980, p. 26-7).

D. Forms of Aggression

Aggression can take may forms. Montagu has classified types of aggression, some of which are: anti-predatory, territorial, dominance, and fear-induced (1976, p. 14). The anti-predatory aggression type would pertain to situations where you feel threatened as if you are being "hunted" by another driver (predator). You, as the hunted, may react aggressively to such a stimulus situation, and might disregard other drivers rights in order to eliminate the predator's threats.

The territorial form of aggression can be typified by the example of you refusing to allow a car to go in front of you or trying to warn the car behind you to back away by pressing quickly on the brakes. This can be related to guarding one's territory or space, and discouraging the invasion of that space.

Challenges to other drivers in the guise of a road race or bet may bring out dominance aggression. The challenge offers an award in the end, such that the "best" or an object offered in a bet. The dominance aggression type may appeal to one's ego or pride, resulting in the aggressive behavior.

If something threatens you, or you feel cornered or confined, you might display fear-induced aggression. For instance, if you are surrounded on all sides by slow-moving busses or trucks, you may feel locked in and unable to escape. Your reaction might be to keep trying to force your way out of the situation.

Problems: Driver

The driver of the vehicle is obviously the source of any resulting aggressive behavior in traffic. Thus, you, as the driver, must adapt, react, and act to situations while on the road. Problems which a driver may encounter in traffic may result from fatigue, frustration, and anger. The driver must react to these personal problems. Some guidelines offered by the American Automobile Association (AAA) are: (1) Identifying potentially upsetting situations; (2) Realizing that you are not the only driver and that other drivers may be upset or may make mistakes; (3) Remembering that your goals may not be the same as others; and (4) Delaying driving when you are too upset to drive (1980, p. 287).

The major emphasis for you, as the driver, is to understand that although the traffic may be upsetting and frustrating, it is predictable. Therefore, if you anticipate that you are not able to react and drive well, you must do something, otherwise the potential for aggressive behavior in traffic may be much greater.

Other Drivers

By driving well yourself, in traffic, you minimize angering other drivers. You lessen your mistakes by concentrating on your own driving. The other drivers may still make mistakes accidentally(or purposefully) or do something stupid, but you become less sensitive and more patient. It is most important to realize that you are just like the other drivers, for they are human and they also make mistakes.


My procedure for gathering field data and observations was the use of a self-witnessing approach. I observed myself in traffic as the driver and also as the passenger. I observed myself over the course of two weeks, driving in traffic on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, to and from work. Each drive was between the University and Downtown Honolulu.

After each of the 12 driving trips, I jotted down my feelings, thoughts, and behaviors in a notebook. Since each trip was not very long, remembering how I felt during the drive was easy. I also tried to record the frequencies of how aggressive I felt, using the following scale: (1) Mild irritation - annoyance (2) Momentary Flare-up or Explosion (3) Anger/Hostile Feelings (4) Continuing Anger or Rage/Bitterness (5) Murderous Feelings/Irrationality.

B. Raw Data Table

1 12
2 10
3 7
4 2
5 0

C. Results

The results of my self-witnessing procedure amazed me. Until I had actually started to record my feelings of aggression and hostility, I never realized that I was consistently feeling irritated and flaring up. After recording the frequencies at the end of each trip, I could tell that I would need to deal with these feelings more successfully in the future. The first day of my self-witnessing was awkward. I kept second-guessing myself and even caught myself looking for trouble.

I even thought that nothing could upset me. So there I was, driving (or should I say crawling) along at around 10 miles per hour, singing along with the music, when "Blaah!", people were honking their horns because a yellow Toyota was trying to force his way into our lane. It didn't bother me until he almost hit me. I honked my horn and swore at him, calling him names that should not be mentioned. I calmed down until I noticed that he was driving at only five miles per hour while the other lanes were speeding along at around 15 to 20 miles per hour. Needless to say, my frequency count for the first trip was:

1 1
2 1
4 1

I could tell that I was not off to the peaceful start that I had imagined. Thus, my self-witnessing continued on and here is a bar chart representing the raw data:

I also found that I was more prone to reacting aggressively when it was very hot, or if I was in a rush. My behavior was also more unpredictable when I had things on my mind which distracted me from concentrating on the road. Thus, some of the aggressive behavior that I displayed was due to my own emotions and actions and could have been lessened or prevented by myself. The following pie chart displays the percentage of the trips where I felt emotional and non-emotional:

D. Discussion

1. Affective Level

On the affective level, I found myself fearing that I might hurt someone, feeling a sense of readiness at times, desiring to see another suffer a bad fate, and striving to get through a trip without having any hostile or aggressive feelings. For example, when the driver of the yellow Toyota angered me to level (4), continuing anger, I felt fear for myself, yet at the same time I had a desire for revenge. After recording my thoughts, feelings, and data, I felt anxiety that maybe I was not as in control of myself as I had pictured myself to be. Perhaps my attitude was the root of the behavior.

2. Cognitive Level

Cognitively, my thoughts were often of planning how to avoid traffic, justifying my own actions and mistakes, and thinking to myself, "Don't let it bother you." I tried to follow Dr. Jakobovits' lead in trying to utilize a self-regulatory statement. I tried to get myself to think in the mode of "That's not my problem, just let it go. God will take care of him/her." It was not easy. It was easier to think "It's his/her fault" or "He/she deserved it." I had to realize that my expectancies for myself and for others might be faulty and would probably have to be re-evaluated.

Judging from my actions, such as: swearing, giving stink eyes, beeping my horn, or following too closely, and others, my reactions in traffic had to be the consequence of my affective feelings and cognitive thoughts. Many times, I would act a certain way or do something and until I actually thought about and recorded my actions, I did not realize that I was acting in that manner.

For instance, if I followed a car too closely, I later saw that I had done so while thinking, "He's too slow, he should get into the right lane or just speed up!" Further, at a more innermost or internal level (affective) I was actually fearing that I would be late to my destination.

The more obvious form of aggression in traffic is the sensorimotor level. This is because actions are more obvious and explicit than feelings or thoughts. Many times, I acted without realizing the deeper, underlying reasons for my actions. Another example of using the three behaviors is: "While driving in traffic at rush hour, I was driving at about 20 miles per hour when a blue Chevy started to follow me very closely.

As I slowed down in order to avoid hitting the car in front, the Chevy would not slow down until the very last second. It was scary. I thought that he would hit me at any moment. As a result, I drove more slowly so that I was not very close to the car in front. Eventually, the driver of the Chevy got impatient and cut into the adjacent lane. I noticed that the driver was a big man and he looked at me as if I was so stupid. He then got in front of my car and proceeded to follow the other car closely. On the affective-level, I felt fear of getting hurt.

I also had a desire to get the other driver angry, wanting to do something to upset him, too. Cognitively, I devised plans to get the other driver angry and interpreted his actions as contrary to my best interests. I justified my behavior by thinking that "This is not my problem, if he wants to hit me, let him hit me, and I'll sue him!" My actions, reflecting my sensorimotor behavior were to slow down and not follow the car in front of me as closely. I also stepped on my brakes more often than I normally do. Further, I even looked at the other driver and watched his actions after his threat to me was over."


A. Recommendations

Driving on the freeway in traffic congestion can bring out frustration and anger in even the most calm and peaceful driver. The key to driving safely is in being able to not let those dangerous feelings and thoughts lead into aggressive behavior, whether if in action, thoughts, or feelings. There are many ways to lessen the potential for aggressive behavior. Often, you can calm down by ranting, verbally relaxing by saying something to yourself which makes you feel better. One essay on the uses of ranting says that "the little terrorist within the skull can overpower even the steadiest mind" and that "Ranting may be a hot wind carrying lies" (Morrow, 1985, p. 66). Thus, ranting may be a way to get your aggressive thoughts out and away instead of endangering another person with other actions.

Another recommendation is to "Be a wimp behind the wheel" (Trippett, 1987, p. 18). Instead of driving with the proverbial block on you shoulder, or feeling as if you are "King of the Road," relax and realize that traffic rules and regulations are for the benefit of society. For you, alone, are not society. You might use a self-regulatory statement such as, "I will not let little things bother me. I am human. You are human. We all make mistakes." Moreover, you could try to be more focused on your own driving rather than on looking for the failures and mistakes of others.

Other recommendations include minimizing insecurities within ourselves and taking control of our environment and control systems (Gaylin, 1984, p. 195). "We must enlarge the population with which we identify . . . In doing so we magnify ourselves and reduce our sense of vulnerability" (Gaylin, 1984, p. 196).

This alternative would be difficult to implement because it involves looking at one's self and recognizing one's own feelings of insecurities and failings. Many people cannot face seeing their own imperfections or dealing with those things that make them feel like failures.

A great part of solving our problems can also be in reconditioning ourselves and our behaviors as we drive in traffic. If another driver honks his horn at you and you consistently react by yelling back, you must recondition yourself so that your response is different in the future. You might try using positive and negative reinforcement to recondition yourself. For example, you might treat yourself to an ice cream cone if you can drive to and from work without getting angry and displaying aggressive behavior. Or on the other hand, you might cancel doing a favorite pastime if you could not drive to and from work without conflict.

Obviously, there are many alternatives for lessening aggressive potential. Yet, the most practical and most difficult solutions involve modifying or changing your own behavior.

B. Recommendations for Myself

For myself, I feel a need to modify my own behavior. I think that since I know that no matter what, I am faced with driving in traffic to and from work, so I must prepare myself to deal with the weather, my emotions, and the behavior of other drivers around me. I can tell that through my own self-witnessing, much of my anger and aggressive behavior during traffic congestion is largely due to the way that I am feeling or what I am thinking about at the time that I am driving.

Thus, since I can't "Move the mountain" (i.e. traffic congestion), I must "Come to the mountain" (i.e. modify my own behavior). Maybe the use of a good self-regulatory statement will help me to modify my behavior during traffic congestion and lessen my potential for aggressive behavior on the freeway during traffic rush hours.


Due to time and location constraints, I found my information at the Hamilton Library on the University of Hawaii at Manoa Campus and at the Hawaii State Library in Downtown Honolulu. Both locations provided a wealth of information offering various opportunities for researching my topic.

A. Hamilton Library: The Hamilton Library is a huge resource, full of various sources of information in many forms. To begin my research strategy, I first used the OPAC system. I used the "SEARCH" mode in order to find books pertaining to my subject. Some of the subject headings and how successful I was in using them are listed below:

Automobile Driving (Too General)
Traffic Safety High
Traffic Accidents High
Violence Moderate
Anger None
Stress None
Aggressiveness Some
Irrationality None
Road Aggression Moderate
Driving-Highways Some

I recorded titles and call numbers, but found that someone had beat me to the books that I needed. Thus, I consulted the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. I looked under these subject headings:

Automobile Driving High
Automobile-Speed High
City Traffic Moderate
Traffic Accidents High
Traffic Congestion High

I found many up-to-date articles in books, magazines, and microfilm form. I also consulted the Infotrac Database, which also had a lot of information. Other subject headings that I tried were:

Aggressiveness(Psychology) Some
Anger-Analysis Some
Anger-Sociological Aspects Some
Automobile Drivers-Crimes Against Moderate
Automobile Drivers-Psychological Aspects Moderate
Automobile Driving on Highways High
Hostility(Psychology) Some

Finding the articles was much better because others could not borrow the periodical literature.

B. Hawaii State Library

Due to the failure to find any books pertaining to the subject I chose, I went to the Hawaii State Library. I consulted the State library on-line Computer System. This system contains information on all books in the entire state library system. An asset of this system is it's "STATUS" command, which allows you to see if a book is still on the shelf.

If it is not available, the system also shows the day when it is due back on the shelf. A drawback is that it does not contain as many subject headings as the computer system at the Hamilton Library. I used the above headings, but found the most success using "Psychology" and "Traffic Safety."

C. Post-Research Thoughts

Even though the research encompassed two-thirds of the time spent to complete this report, it was not as tedious as I thought it would be. Finding good sources were a challenge which was sometimes frustrating and at others, rewarding. Through using both libraries, I became familiar with two different library computer systems and their classification systems. It will be much easier for me to find research sources in the future, rather than before, when I did not really utilize the computer systems.

These systems save precious time, especially since the Hamilton On-Line System offers the "PRINT" option, eliminating the time spent on copying down information from the screen. This required research was excellent for getting acquainted with the libraries.


The writing of this research paper was less time-consuming than the time taken to gather sources. As I wrote it, I realized that explaining behavior is not a simple endeavor. Behaviors can be identified, defined, and changed is so many different ways. Also, no one right view is universally true.

This makes it hard to find the one right answer or theory to explain any topic concerning behavior. A lot of my paper covers my own thoughts and feelings about my topic. There wasn't a lot of information that directly covered my topic. My advice to future students might be that they pick a few subtopics and see which topic has the most resources available before choosing a specific topic.

I found it hard to write at least twenty pages and I feel that I repeated myself many times. Due in part to the amount of opinions and feelings that I interjected myself, I feel that perhaps the Professor could make the paper from 15 to 20 pages in the future. Another suggestion is to offer more variety in topics because resources are limited, and too many people utilizing the same resources may result in incomplete research reports.

Overall, the project was an interesting and time-consuming one. I feel that I worked very hard to produce a paper which I think covers many different aspects of aggression, not just aggressive behavior on the freeways in traffic congestion.


Aggression: Any form of behavior done with the intention of harming another individual who does not want to be harmed.

Anti-Predatory Aggression: Characterized by threats from aggressor (predator).

Behavior: Action involving body movement, thought, or feeling.

Dominance: Aggression characterized by the need to be superior.

Fear-Induced: Aggression characterized by a feeling of inescapability and threat.

Harm: Physical injury or damage as a consequence of a behavior and subsequent act.

Intention: The conscious planning and execution of a behavior.

Territorial: Aggression characterized by the need to protect or guard one's space or area.

Trait: Internal characteristic corresponding to an extreme position on a behavioral dimension.


American Automobile Association (1980). Sportsman-like Driving. New York: McGraw-Hill. (629.283A)

Caprara, G.V. et al (1984). Interpolating Physical Exercise Between Instigation to Aggress and Aggression. Aggressive Behavior, 12, 83-91.

Edmunds, George & Kendrick, D.C. (1980). The Measurement of Human Aggressiveness. New York: Halsted Press. (152.4E)

Gaylin, Willard (1984). The Rage Within. New York: Simon and Schuster. (152.43G)

Gordon, Charles (1985). Frustrations of a Canadian Rambo. Macleans, 98, 9.

Kaus, Mickey & Huck, Janet (1987). Gunplay on the Freeway. Newsweek, 110, 18.

Montagu, Ashley (1976). The Nature of Human Aggression. New York: Oxford University. (152.4M)

Morrow, Lance (1985). Oh Shut Up! The Uses of Ranting. Time, 125, p.66

National Safety Council (1972). Motor Fleet Safety Manual. Chicago: same. (614.862N)

Packard, Chris (1974). Sports Illustrated: Safe Driving. Philadelphia: Lippincott. (629.28P)

Potkay, Charles R. and Bem P. Allen (1986). Personality: Theory. Research and Applications. Monterey: Brooks/Cole.

Selg, Herbert, ed. (1935). The Making of Human Aggression. New York: St. Martin's Press. (152.4S)

Storr, Anthony (1973). Human Destructiveness. New York: Basic Books. (152.4S)

Trippett, Frank (1987). Highway to Homicide. Time, 130, 18.

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