Aggressiveness on the Road: Driver Behavior

Index of Reports


This paper examines aggression on the road, with an emphasis on the behavior and attitude of the driver. I decided to devote a section solely to the definition of aggression because it is such a broad term which has many meanings. The term aggression encompasses many areas which most people are not aware of.

I then examined the occurrence of aggression on the road and some of the factors that can lead a driver to become aggressive. Along with this I touched on some common forms of aggression that are seen on the roads, such as verbal aggression and the reasons surrounding it.

To explain road aggression I used Henry Murray's theory of Environmental Press. This theory evolves around the idea that there are certain "presses" in our environment that help us predict things that are likely to happen. A press can either be negative or positive to the person, who will obviously avoid the upcoming event if the press is negative. I focused on the reaction of drivers who, after being affected by the negative press, cannot avoid the activity it predicts.

This paper also includes sections on some techniques of library research that I used to compose this paper, and my field observation, or experiment I used to predict a driver's aggressiveness. I hope you enjoy reading this paper and that it will be of some help to you as you begin yours.

Definition of Aggression

According to my dictionary, American Standard Dictionary, aggression is defined as: 1. "An unprovoked attack. ;2. Hostile behavior." These definitions come to the mind of most people when the word aggression is used. However, in the field of psychology, a definition like this can be way too broad to satisfy psychologists who study human aggression. For this reason, Robert A. Baron, one of the most active and respected investigators of aggression, as suggested by our text, states, "Aggression is any form of behavior performed with the intention or goal of harming another living being who is motivated to avoid harm(Potkay and Allen, 1986, p. 399). This definition has four major components that need to be addressed and analyzed in order to fully understand the definition.

The first component is behavior. This is because the act of aggression is a behavior. Aggression is the behavior we sometimes show when becoming angry, frustrated, or confused. The use of aggression is the end result of these motivations.

The next component is intention. According to Baron, intention is "the conscious planning and execution of a behavior"(Potkay and Allen, 1986, p. 399). In referring to aggression, the goal of this intention is to cause harm to another being. This brings us to the next component.

This is the concept of harm. "Harm is considered to have occurred as a consequence of a behavior if there is physical injury or damage that outweighs any benefits resulting from the act"(PotRay and Allen, 1986, p. 400). Therefore in reference to aggression, the behavior you show must be intended to do some kind of harm.

The last major component involves the living being. Baron believes that to have aggressed, the object of your aggression must be able to experience pain and suffering. This is because one can only be harmed by an attack of aggression if one can feel the results of the attack.

Occurrence of Aggression on Roadways

Most people, from experience, realize that many forms of aggression happen very frequently on our roadways. I feel that one of the main reasons for this is because usually when someone is driving they are trying to get somewhere. They have a destination, and more often than not, a time limit in which to reach that destination. Sitting in traffic is just like standing in line at the bank. No one likes to wait.

Factors That Can Contribute to Road Aggression

There are quite a few factors that can contribute to a driver becoming aggressive. Noise is a big factor that can lead to aggression and aggressive behavior. Baron reported several studies that showed that a loud noise creates high aggression. This is a concept that I can totally relate to. I have no air conditioning in my car so my windows are always open. Have you ever gone through the Pali tunnel next to a large truck, with your window down? Another situation that really sticks in my mind is being stopped at a light and having a truck roll up next to you and let the air pressure out of its breaks. Argh! Sometimes I think the driver spots me a mile away and just waits until he can pull up next to me.

Heat is another factor that raises the level of aggression in people. No one likes to be uncomfortable. No one likes to be stuck in traffic. When the two are put together, watch out. Our textbook, "Personality: Theory, Research and Application, states that there are studies that have shown that people become less tolerant of others when they are in a physically uncomfortable surrounding(Potkay and Allen, 1986, p. 408).

Then there is always the fact that people have their bad days. I know I drive differently according to what kind of mood I'm in. My mood largely depends on how my day went. If I had a bad day, my desire to get home is increased. When I'm in this kind of mood I become really frustrated with most other drivers, no matter how they are driving.

Verbal Aggression

Verbally aggressive messages attack a person's self-concept in order to make the person feel badly about him or herself. There are numerous types of verbally aggressive messages, including character attacks, insults, teasing, ridicule and profanity. In our society, some kinesic behaviors have become functionally equivalent to words, so you can even say that verbal aggression can be expressed nonverbally.

Research presented in our text suggests that verbal aggression is a major cause of violence, and that impulsive violence usually begins with verbal aggression and leads to physical aggression.

Reasons for Verbal Aggression

Several reasons have been suggested in our text as the cause of verbal aggression. Frustration, which is caused by having a goal blocked by someone, is a major cause. Also included is social learning. This is when individuals are conditioned to behave aggressively. This can include modeling, where the person learns a behavior by watching a model such as a parent, or even the television. Another reason that has been examined is called argumentative skill deficiency, which is when people resort to verbal aggression because they don't have the verbal skills to deal with social conflicts reasonably. These people feel that violence is their only alternative.

Aggression in Relation to Automobile Accidents and Moving

There seems to be a relation between personality traits and involvement in automobile accidents. This means that the tendency to have an accident is enhanced when certain personality traits are present. It has been shown that people who have aggressive personalities tend to get involved in more accidents that others. This is because aggressive people usually have less concern for the rights and privileges of others in on-the-road situations.

There is limited research on aggression in relation to moving violations, but it has been found that personality traits may be even more related to violations than accidents. Moving violations include such activities as careless driving, speeding, and disobeying traffic signs. Drivers who become angry easily are more likely to have a high number of traffic violations.

Human Nature Behind the Wheel

Most people believe that everyone also should get out of their way the minute they get behind the wheel of a car. This is similar to the feelings some people get when placed in a position of authority. People tend to express this feeling of superiority by driving at high speeds and trying to pass at every opportunity. You can draw the conclusion that human nature cannot be expected to be as nice on the road as it is at home or on the sidewalk.

Henry Murray's Theory of Environmental Press

Road aggression can be related to Henry Murray's Theory of Environmental Press. "The press of any object in the external environment is what it can do to or for the "person"(Polkay and Allen, 1986, p. 374). Murray labels press as "potent evokers"(Polkay and Allen, 1986, p. 375) of behavior or things that are likely to happen. Therefore, environmental press can either attract a person or repel a person, according to whether the effect of the press is expected to be negative or positive. If the effect of the press is expected to be negative, then the person will try to prevent it from happening by avoiding it or defending against it.

A person can usually accomplish avoiding the press if the press happens to be a nosy neighbor or co-worker. To avoid the unpleasantness you feel when in contact with these people you can usually see some tactic to keep them away. But what happens when your press is the long ride home from work? You know there is going to be congestion. You know it is going to be hot. You know you will probably miss the six o'clock news. This is when aggression is likely to flare up. You know that the negative feelings are coming and yet there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.

Library Research

My library research started with a tour of the library and a brief description and instruction of the information sources available by my library tutor. I was kind of disappointed with the results. Maybe I was expecting too much, but I felt that it didn't make any significant difference in my ability to find information. My tutor didn't really seem to be too interested in helping me and therefore the assistance she had for me was very minimum. Some of the other people in class felt differently and really appreciated the help of their tutors.


Most of my searching was on the OPAC computer, unfortunately, it seemed that it was everyone else's main source too, because all the listings that looked interesting were not on the shelves by the time I got there. It was very frustrating. Part of it was my fault because I waited a little longer than most people to get started.

Of course the first word I looked up was aggression. There wasn't anything too relevant to the paper. Most of the headings were on international law and conflict. The word aggressive was a little more informative, but the books listed were already off the shelf. I propose that you start on your research as soon as possible.

My first sub-topic was going to be the invasion of personal space. After looking up the key words personal and space I found a few books on the subject. It took me awhile to realize that it wasn't going to be very easy to tie the two topics together. There was information on aggression on the road and on personal space, but it would have been almost impossible two write an intelligent paper about how they related to each other.

Driving was another keyword I'm sure everyone looked up. There were a few good listings, but I don't think I used any of them for the paper. The keyword that helped me with most of my information was "automobile." When I had the sub-topic of invasion of personal space, I was looking for some information on how the automobile was essentially an extension of the driver's body when on the road, and how a person's car could be considered part of their personal space.

Psychological Abstracts

Psychological Abstracts was a big help, considering all the books on aggression were checked out. I found quite a few articles on aggression, including verbal aggression, and a few articles on personality variables related to automobile moving violations. If you plan to use Infotrac, be prepared to wait in line a long time.

Every time I went to use it there was already a line. Then when your time came everyone else behind you acted really impatient, clearing their throats and making heavy sighs. Oh well.

Other Sources

There are other information sources, such as ERIC, government documents, and the Hawaiian collection. I didn't particularly need these since I felt I already had accumulated sufficient information. I suggest you should look into these sources anyway because a couple of times I came home from the library thinking I had enough information, but had to go back the next day looking for more.

Field Observations . . . Procedure

Since I drive in a carpool over the Pali every morning and afternoon to and from school I was able to observe other drivers closely. There are other people I drive with frequently and also included them in my observations.

I concentrated on how these people drove on a normal day and how they drove when they had had a bad day. Since there are quite a few people that I drive with regularly, I had no trouble using six people which fit into my categories of aggressive personality, mild personality, and passive personality.

I used no scientific method for determining the boundaries of each category, just common sense. The people which I determined to have aggressive personalities were ones in which usually wanted their own way, were impatient and usually intolerant of other people's mistakes. I had known these people to often make rash and hurried decisions in their lives.

The mild personality category involved people that were normally tolerant of other people, were cooperative and mild mannered. My subjects who fit into the passive personality category were people who usually let others make decisions for them, gave up easily in projects, and who would usually not push an argument even when they knew they were right.

I know most of these people fairly well so they didn't have to tell me if they had a normal or a bad day. I could easily tell by their actions even before they got behind the wheel. After watching a particular driver and observing their actions of whether they were aggressive, mild, or passive, I would recite to them what their actions were.

Raw Data Tables

Driving After a Normal Day Drives Aggressively Drives Mildly Drives Passively
Theresa: Aggressive Personality YES NO NO
Debbie: Aggressive Personality NO YES NO
Deana: Mild Personality NO YES NO
Monica: Mild Personality YES NO NO
Christy: Passive Personality NO NO YES
Mom: Passive Personality NO YES NO

Driving After a Bad Day Drives Aggressively Drives Mildly Drives Passively
Theresa: Aggressive Personality YES NO NO
Debbie: Aggressive Personality YES NO NO
Deana: Mild Personality YES NO NO
Monica: Mild Personality YES NO NO
Christy: Passive Personality NO NO YES
Mom: Passive Personality YES NO NO


The results of my field observations are fairly clear. Both of my subjects with aggressive personalities tended to drive very aggressively after having a bad day, whether or not they drove aggressively on a normal day. My subjects with mild personalities also tended to drive aggressively after a bad day, even though they both drove fairly steadily on normal days. Out of my two subjects who had passive personalities, only one did not drive aggressively on a bad day, I asked the passive driver if she ever got frustrated on the road and she said that she did, but that it didn't help any to get mad at other drivers because there wasn't anything you could do about them.

The aggressive drivers were usually shocked by some of the things that I had observed. They were surprised that they had used profanity because they could only remember thinking it, not saying it out loud. They defended most of their actions, such as tailgating, speeding, and switching lanes, by saying that it got them home sooner.

The mild driver usually drove about the same speed as the other on the road and changed lanes only when someone was going unusually slow in the right lane. When asked why they didn't try to get home sooner they stated that it didn't matter how they drove and that they usually caught up with the people that passed them at the first light.

The passive driver never let anything bother them. Even when other drivers were rude and cut in front of them. They took it all in stride. When asked why they let the person get in front of them they really couldn't give any concrete answer. A good response was, why not?


My subjects, with the exception of one, behaved in a predictable manner according to my research on aggression and driving. Having a bad day only increases the frustration one feels when being stuck in traffic. The other major elements that contribute to aggression, such as heat and noise were also present in my observations.

Even though the definition of aggression includes the intention of harming someone, none of my subjects would ever intentionally harm someone on the road, at least not physically. Most of the aggression that my subjects showed were aimed at hurting the other driver's character. It was so harmless that it didn't matter whether or not the other driver could hear the subject's insults. My observations also supported the fact that aggression on the road occurs very often.

My subjects were all normal people, and yet 5 out of 6 showed a high level of aggression when becoming frustrated while driving. This means that most normal people have and will become aggressive while on the road.

Henry Murray's theory of Environmental Press also applies to my findings. The traffic, or the press, is expected to have a negative effect on the driver, and yet there is no way to avoid the press. That causes a person's level of aggression to increase.

There was also a slight correlation between the rate of accidents-violations and an aggressive personality. Out of my two subjects with aggressive personalities, one had been in an accident with two speeding tickets in the past year. The other had one speeding ticket. One of my subjects with a mild personality had one speeding ticket in the past year. The other had no violations. Subjects with a passive personality had no violations in the past year.


It was definitely a challenge doing this paper. Although I hated doing it, I suppose it was good experience that will be a benefit for me in my next two years in school. I'm sure there will be more twenty-page papers to follow before I graduate.

I put a lot of time and effort into this paper. Unfortunately, it took up most of my spring break, but I guess that's what you get when you procrastinate. Another benefit I received from doing this paper is that I am now very familiar with the library. From now with future projects I won't have to waste any time in figuring out how to find information.

I think it is a good idea to have students write papers such as this, although I felt a twenty pager was a bit too long. Twenty pages is a little too intimidating for most students. It was obvious by how the enrollment dropped over the semester. Most of the students who ended up staying in class and writing the paper were the ones who had to take the class for their major. Everyone else simply dropped the class.

If I have any advice for the students who will be writing a paper similar to this in the future, it would be to start early. When the assignment is given to you at the beginning of the semester, take it seriously. When you know you have almost four months to do it, you keep putting it off, thinking you will have plenty of time. Before you know it, it is due in two weeks. Good luck!


Einesic: Body movements and gestures.

Press: Forces in the outside world that influence a person's behavior.

Personality Trait: An internal characteristic that corresponds to an extreme position on a behavioral dimension.

Modeling: Where a person learns a particular behavior by watching a model perform that behavior.

Argumentative Skill Deficiency: When people resort to aggression because they don't have the verbal skills to deal with social conflict reasonably.


Halsey, M. (1941). Traffic Accidents and Congestion. Bridgeport, Conn: Braunworth and Co., Inc.

Infante, D. & Wigley III, C. (1986). Verbal Aggressiveness: An Interpersonal Model and Measure. Communications Monographs. 53. 61-68.

Krames & Pliner, P., & Alloway, T. (1978). Advances in the Study of Communication and Affect. New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Panek, P., & Wagner, E. (1986). Hand Test Personality Variables Related to Automobile Moving Violations in Female Drivers. Journal of Personality Assessment. 50. 208-211.

Polkay, C. & Allen, B. (1986). Personality: Theory, Research, and Applications . Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.

Sarason, I. & Spielberger, C. (1976). Stress and Anxiety. Washington, D.C: Hemisphere Publishing Co.

Spivak, A. (1972). The Immoral Machine. San Jose, CA: Milieu Information Service.

Back To HomepageDr. James' HomepageE-Mail Me
Index of Reports