Oahu Traffic Safety Council
Traffic Psychology Handout

Dr. Leon James
Department of Psychology
University of Hawaii

Table of Contents


Psychological Aspects of Traffic Flow:
Suggestions for Continuing Driver Education

Drivers of all ages and experience need training or retraining in the following skills:

1. Stopping in front of the white line at stop signs. (Waiting for the dip)

2. Putting on the turn signal in consideration of others. (Thinking about how to reduce stress to others.)

3. Feeling responsible for creating stress for other road users. (Need to evolve an altruistic attitude in traffic.)

4. On ramp merging. (People inch too far, thus failing to leave enough space for picking up speed.)

5. Driving with greater awareness. (Radio talk shows can explore topics such as "Is speeding dangerous? Immoral?" This will bring attention to people's irrational ideas in driving.)

6. Creating positive mental scenarios rather than negative. ("Traffic is not too bad. I'll just relax." vs. "Traffic is awful. I'll never get home.")

7. Understanding traffic situations. (Difference in norms between left and right lanes. Proper following distance for best traffic flow. Reducing stress in dense traffic.)

8. Ability to handle routine obstacles to traffic flow (when a lane is closed and merging is required).

9. Using brakes in consideration of others (warning them of an obstacle, or, not following too close)

10. Looking over the shoulder before switching lanes (over-coming resistance to effort and the fear of appearing foolish).

11. Making a safe right turn (not letting vehicle go forward while looking right for clearance).

12. Compensating for the blind spot and using both mirrors for 360 degree view (not letting a car "disappear" in your blind spot).

13. Avoiding the "accordion effect" in the left lane when cars follow too close to each other and run out of space (keep proper distance or use right lane).

14. Avoiding the "danger gap" which leaves a small space between the left and right lanes and invites other drivers to weave through it (keep gap wide for safety).

15. Merging properly when a lane is closed (keep in your lane until you reach the cones).

16. Avoiding "cohort traveling" (speeding up till the next car and following closely so that cars travel in a dense bunch instead of spreading out).

17. Controlling one's mental violence (not letting frustration lead to aggressiveness).

18. Avoiding the symbols of competition in driving (racing to get there first; wanting to pass all cars; feeling ridiculed when a lot of cars pass you).

19. Invoking higher motivations in driving (equity, fairness, morality, altruism, religion).

20. Correcting fallacious beliefs about traffic ("Going 15 to 20 miles per hour over the speed limit is not speeding" or "Going at speed limit is too slow and causes accidents").

21. Giving up a "laissez faire" attitude towards others ("What's happening to that driver is not my problem")

22. Figuring things out ahead of time (when to turn, which way to go, when to change lanes) so as to avoid sudden or impulsive maneuvers.

Public Image Campaigns for Driving

Portraying a new image for driving:

1. Interactions among drivers in traffic is an opportunity for community development when drivers are sportsmanlike and altruistic to each other. This creates bonding forces between the citizens, an opportunity for expressing the Aloha spirit.

2. Driving in a manner helpful to others is a community resource that strengthens solidarity and morale, leading to good feelings, greater self-esteem, happiness, health.

3. Driving defensively is good, but driving altruistically is even better. Morality and religion are part of driving.

4. New topics, slogans, and stickers. ("I try to drive altruistically" "I try to drive the speed limit")

5. Drive the Limit Day.

Understanding Traffic Psychology

1. Driving in traffic is stressful and dangerous. There is a need for traffic counseling services for the public.

2. Irrational responses to traffic congestion is common. People get panicked in bumper to bumper traffic. One can feel locked in and have irrational ideas ("I won't be able to get out of here!")

3. Speeding has to be treated like an addiction. People resist the idea that speeding is dangerous and immoral, and become hostile and irrational when discussing it.

4. It is common for a driver to feel resistance in using the brakes, partly because speed is an addiction, and partly because of the operation of the Law of Least Effort in driving. Fallacious beliefs occur when using the brakes ("Don't use it too much. They're gonna wear out" or "It's too much trouble. Just let her ride. It'll stop by itself since we're coming near a hill").

5. Speed as an addiction attracts to itself rationalizations that are fallacious ("It's the slow driver that causes accidents").

6. To overcome speeding as an addiction, a three-way approach is needed: (I) reconditioning procedures for sensory and motor reactions; (II) cognitive re-education emphasizing the reasons why not to speed; (III) affective education focusing on attitudes, responsibility, ethics, and morality. Traffic refers to the environment of drivers. This includes physical, social, and psychological dimensions. The traffic environment can be viewed as a social-psychological field containing strong and weak forces that influence and determine the behavior and state of drivers.

Psychological forces acting on drivers include their moment to moment interpretation of traffic situations and events. Drivers use various signals to show their driving intentions. Some of these are official such as the turn signal. Other signals are read by interpersonal inference, as when drivers at a four-way stop crossing wave or nod, or merely exchange glances to determine who will go first.

Driving in traffic routinely involves events and incidents. Events are normal sequential maneuvers such as stopping for the light, changing lanes, or putting on the brakes. Incidents are frequent but abnormal events. Some of these are dangerous and frightening, such as near-accidents, while others are merely annoying or depressing, such as being insulted by a driver or forgetting to make a turn. Driving events and incidents are sources of psychological forces capable of producing powerful feelings and irrational thought sequences.

Traffic psychology is the study of the social-psychological forces that act upon drivers in traffic. Situations are analyzed through external as well as internal methods of data gathering. For example, in one study the aggressiveness of drivers was measured in terms of observed rate of speed reduction, or the making of some hostile gesture at pedestrians in a marked crosswalk. It was found that aggressiveness of both men and women drivers was higher against men pedestrians than women pedestrians. This is an instance of the external analysis of driver behavior. In another study, drivers spoke their thoughts out loud into a tape recorder giving their perceptions and reactions to traffic events and incidents. It was found that the average trip from home and work is filled with many incidents that arouse feelings of hostility and thoughts of mental violence. This is an instance of the internal analysis of driver behavior. An approach that involves both internal and external analyses consists of interviewing drivers about their driving, either "in depth" or on a questionnaire. One may also have observers independently make observations of drivers who are making self-witnessing tapes, which allows the comparison of external and internal data.

Personality and character are related to a driver's style of coping with traffic stress. Acts, thoughts, and feelings in driving interact in an integrated system. A driving trip typically involves the presence of a dominant motive such as the feeling of being in a rush, or the desire to outplay other drivers by getting ahead of them. The dominant motive is a character trait that expresses itself in other settings. For example, a person may experience hostile thoughts towards others wherever competition is at work, whether a bank line, a restaurant, or switching traffic lanes. Data on the private world of drivers show that frustration begets anger leading to feelings of hostility that are elaborated in mental violence and ridicule.

Traffic psychology also studies the nature of risk taking in driving. Few traffic situations are without risk. Drivers are constantly involved with this risk. Incidents occur all the time and the threat involved is experienced as stress. Reduction of traffic stress is a major concern for traffic psychologists. Methods include traffic safety education for children, driver education for adolescents, continuing driver education for adults, and public media campaigns.

Driver self-modification attempts are also desirable. These involve a systematic program of self-intervention that includes self-observation of habits and errors. Important themes for driver self-improvement include the morality of speeding, the rightness of tailgating, self-control and discipline in trip planning and execution, altruism, sportsmanship, and the like. The use of self-regulatory sentences to counteract impulsive and irrational behavior is a promising method.

Traffic Safety Radio Messages or Spot Announcements

"A message brought to you by the Traffic Safety Council."

1. Are you driving under the influence of awareness? You should. It may save a life.

2. How much are you driving over the speed limit right now? Is it safe to do that?

3. Do you see someone driving at the speed limit? Smile at them. They're doing a good thing. They are saving lives.

4. Did you know that most accidents are caused by human error? Watch out!

5. How close is the car ahead of you? It should be at least one car length for every 10 miles per hour of your speed.

6. Are you driving in the left lane? Have you tried the right lane lately? It's nice and relaxing.

7. Ask yourself this. Is it right for you to tailgate a person? Is it right?

8. Are you frustrated in traffic? Are you impatient? Look around. Smile at one another!

9. Are you in heavy traffic right now? Watch out for the accordion effect! That's what happens when you're following too closely.

10. Hi there, driver. Is your radio playing too loud? Have a heart. Fill it with love for your neighbor.

11. Careless driving is bad. Defensive driving is better. Polite and sportsmanlike driving is the best.

12. Think of it this way. Some people think that speeding is safer, that going slower is unsafe. They're wrong!

13. Save a life. Just say NO to speeding.

14. In 1988 more than fifty thousand Americans will die in traffic accidents. Almost four million will be seriously injured. Don't break the speed limit!

15. Did you know that one quarter of the children who die between the ages of 5 to 14, die in a traffic accident? Please watch out.

16. Did you know that traffic deaths account for almost half of deaths for 15 to 24 year olds? Please don't break the speed limit.

List of Irrational Ideas During Driving

Group I: Self-imposed anxieties about hurrying in traffic

(1) "I'm going to be late if I don't hurry up." [=scaring yourself]

(2) "Why is it that whenever I'm rushing, the traffic is heavy." [=vexing yourself]

(3) "Why are these cars going so slow." [=encouraging your impatience]

(4) "I'll never make it now." [=catastrophizing; scaring yourself]

(5) "I won't let this car squeeze in because I'm in a rush." [=disregard for the rights of others]

(6) "Why are these cars not letting me go." [=paranoia]

(7) "I hope it's green." [=setting yourself up for disappointment]

(8) "If I can make it through the next two stop lights then I'll be fine." [=increasing one's stress]

(9) "There shouldn't be any traffic at this hour." [=vexing or frustrating yourself]

(10) "Let's rush home because..." [=pre-programming yourself to be in a hurry]

(11) "Why is this light taking so long to change." [=encouraging your impatience]

(12) "Oh, no. Red light!" [=catastrophizing; depressing yourself]

(13) "Great. Green light!" [=reinforcing wrong involvement]

(14) "How lucky. Those lights are green." [=reinforcing wrong involvement]

(15) "Hope traffic isn't too bad." [=catastrophizing]

(16) "Oh, my God. Traffic looks pretty jammed." [=catastrophizing]

(17) "Finally got into that lane. Why aren't we moving." [=exaggerating; vexing yourself]

(18) "We'll never make it." [=catastrophizing; exaggerating]

(19) "Just made it." [=wrong involvement]

(20) "There are lots of cars behind me. They want me to go faster." [=putting pressure on yourself]

(21) "That driver behind me is thinking I'm driving too slow." [=putting pressure on yourself]

(22) "I never realized how long this light takes to change." [=exaggerating; vexing yourself]

(23) "Bummers. Missed the green arrow." [=depressing yourself]

(24) "If only I had gone a little faster I could've made that turn." [=depressing yourself]

(25) "There's that dumb stop light again." [=depressing yourself]

(26) "I'll be waiting here for years if I don't run over those sensors a couple of times." [=exaggerating; justifying an illegal maneuver]

Group II: Dangerous similes for vehicle maneuvering

(1) "Let's just squeeze in." [=underrates space requirements]

(2) "I have to weave through traffic." [=underrates space requirements]

(3) "All of these cars are trying to squeeze in." [=underrates space requirements]

(4) "I'm zooming past all the slower cars." [=identifying with speedy object]

(5) "Let me rip out of this parking lot." [=identifying with speedy object]

(6) "Fly over those speed bumps!" [=identifying with speedy act]

(7) "Let's hop over to the other lane." [=identifying with speedy act]

(8) "Boy, do I feel stupid. All the cars are zooming past me." [=identifying with speedy act]

(9) "My foot is dying to stomp on the pedal." [=accepting your love for speed]

(10) "I have a lead foot." [=justifying speeding]

Group III: Accepting one's speeding addiction

(1) "Just 10 miles per hour over the speed limit." [=justifying yourself; underrating one's speed]

(2) "I better watch out for cops around here." [=wrong solution]

(3) "Everybody seems to be speeding right now. I'm just going with the flow of traffic." [=justifying yourself; diffusing responsibility]

(4) "Let's tailgate this car in front of me. He's driving too slow." [=showing disregard for the rights of others]

(5) "It's O.K. to go 60 in a 35 zone because I'm almost at the stop lights anyway." [=justifying yourself illogically]

(6) "I'm going 50 in a 35 zone. Who cares? No one else seems to be on the road." [=delusion]

(7) "Time to step on the gas pedal." [=accepting your love for speed]

(8) "Boy, all this power on your hands feels good." [=accepting your love for speed]

(9) "I can't help it if I'm a hot rodder." [=accepting your love for speed]

(10) "Going 35 on that turn. Not bad. As long as you don't ram any of those railings." [=self-serving value judgment]

(11) "I drive like a maniac." [=being proud of something bad]

(12) "I'm a total maniac on the road." [=being proud of something bad]

(13) "Can't wait for that sign to switch to 55." [=accepting your love for speed]

(14) "It feels good to go faster." [=accepting your love for speed]

Group IV: Delusional responses to ordinary traffic incidents

(1) "Ha! I'll speed up to show him a lesson."

[=punishment fantasy]

(2) "I'll race you home." [=dangerous symbolism]

(3) "I hate that car behind me. He is tailgating me." [=lack of impulse control]

(4) "I'm a good driver." [=delusional self-assessment]

(5) "If they can speed, I don't see why I shouldn't." [=illogical thought sequence]

(6) "If I get caught [speeding], they will too." [=illogical thought sequence]

List of Rehabilitative Ideas in Driving

Group I: Self-regulatory reminders

(1) "I'll take it easy over those speed bumps." [=speed control in parking lot]

(2) "Nice'n slow. That's the way." [=speed control]

(3) "Take your time to merge."<[=speed control in merging]

(4) "Keep it a 35." [=speed control while cruising]

(5) "Have some patience." [=general impulse control]

(6) "I have to remember to discipline myself." [=pep talk for self-discipline]

(7) "Make that turn nice'n slow." [=speed control in a turn]

(8) "I won't speed up. I'll let him get in front of me." [=altruistic exchange]

(9) "Remember how much safer you'll be if you drive the speed limit." [=pep talk for self-discipline]

(10) "Remember the speed limit." [=speed control while cruising]

(11) "I sure have that urge to step on it. But I won't." [=impulse control in speeding]

(12) "Just don't rush it." [=general impulse control]

(13) "I didn't speed the entire day. That feels good." [=building altruism and responsibility]

(14) "Remember to drive slow." [=speed control]

(15) "A lot of cars, but that's all right." [=general impulse control]

(16) "Oh, a yellow light. Should I go for it? Better not." [=impulse control]

(17) "Don't step on that gas pedal like you always do." [=impulse control]

(18) "Remember, don't need to rush." [=general impulse control]

(19) "I shouldn't speed up to get in front of all these cars." [=pep talk about speeding and altruism]


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