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Leon James
Professor of Psychology
University of Hawaii



Generational Self-Witnessing Reports

Five Driving Psychology Reports from the 1980s

Student Annotations on Web Links


Syllabus and Assignment Reports for G8

Syllabus and Assignment Reports for G7


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Dr. Driving's Web Site

The Social Psychology of Driving

The Nine Zones of Your Driving Personality

Self-Witnessing Behind the Wheel

Congressional Testimony on Aggressive Drivers

An Overview of Road Rage--by Dr. Driving

Driving Psychology Topics Recommended by Dr. Driving

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Principles of Traffic Psychology
An Overview of Twenty Years--1976-1996

Traffic psychology refers to the knowledge one acquires about how to use behavioral principles to modify one's own style of conduct in traffic situations including driving, bicycling, walking, and other forms of locomotion in shared spaces. A common activity in traffic psychology is to attempt to modify one's old driving persona to a new and better driving persona. The more you become an expert traffic psychologist the more thoroughly you can alter your traffic personality.

Origins of Traffic Psychology

Traffic Psychology evolved out of the Generational Curriculum archives. Starting in 1980, many of my students at the University of Hawaii created self-witnessing lab reports on their own driving behavior by making tape recordings of their thoughts and feelings as they drove in traffic. Subsequent generations of students studying social psychology and personality theory, used these generational reports to study other people's experiences in their self-modification attempts at becoming better traffic users. For a review, see an article I wrote on the private World of the driver -- feelings, thoughts, and actions.

(1) Driving has become intolerably stressful, dangerous, demeaning. For instance: about 50,000 (fifty-thousand) deaths every year and about 3,000,000 (three million) injuries every year, year after year. As well, drivers are stressed out, threaten each other, are in a bad mood, terrorize their passengers, and often fantasize violent acts against each other. This shows there is a strong need for traffic psychology which can reverse this trend and alter our driving styles.

Benefits of Traffic Psychology

(2) The benefits of traffic psychology include the following:

The Procedures in Traffic Psychology

Two Stages of Driving Persona Makeover

Stage 1
Becoming a Reformed Driver

Affective Level
Overcoming Resistance to Change

Cognitive Level
Rational Analysis of Traffic Incidents

Sensorimotor Level
Giving the Appearance of a Being a Reformed Driver

  • inhibiting or mitigating or modulating states of anger and aggression
  • allowing passenger to complain or make suggestions
  • inhibiting swearing and cussing and other explosive verbal behaviors
  • reaffirming the value of becoming a reformed driver
  • activating higher motives within the self: love of order and justice, patriotism, nobility, chivalry, public spiritedness, charity, friendliness to strangers or, aloha
  • avoidance of the attribution error
  • counteracting one's self-serving bias
  • maintaining the self-witnessing topic focus
  • acquiring new, more benign, more socialized self-regulatory sentences
  • waving, smiling, signaling
  • not crowding, not rushing in, not swearing
  • not aggressing against passengers
  • acting being in a good mood, etc.

Stage 2
Becoming a Facilitative Driver
(presumes or contains stage 1)

Affective Level
Maintaining Loyalty to One's Driving Image and Reputation ("Face Work as a Driver")

Cognitive Level
Reasoning Like a Traffic Psychologist

Sensorimotor Level
Behaving Like a Happy Reformed Driver

  • feeling responsible for incidents and seeking opportunities to make reparations
  • feeling regret at one's unfriendly behaviors and impulses
  • feeling good about behaving nobly
  • delighting in orderliness and mutual regard
  • feeling enthusiasm for sharing traffic psychology with others
  • feeling appreciation when being given advice by passenger
  • being forgiving of others' mistakes and weaknesses
  • acknowledging one's driving errors and marking and rehearsing the solution
  • observing other driver's behaviors objectively or impartially
  • noticing and being helpful to other drivers
  • verbalizing nice sentiments
  • enjoying the ride and relaxing

A Comprehensive Theory of Driving Behavior

There are two perspectives possible and necessary on what people do as drivers, one external, the other, internal. The external view on driving includes road conditions and vehicle manipulation; data on these is obtainable from instruments, measurements, and observer evaluation. The internal view on driving is the perspective of the drivers themselves: their sensations, perceptions, verbalizations, thoughts, decisions, emotions, and feelings. Data on these aspects of the behavior of drivers cannot be obtained by instruments, nor by an observer. Instead, some method must be devised by which the drivers can make records of their on-going perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. This paper presents a theory of driving behavior based on self-witnessing reports made by drivers who talked out loud into a tape recorder while they were driving to and from work on their daily route.

Three Domains of Driving Behavior

Modern psychology is thoroughly behavioristic. It sidesteps the dualism issue by defining all human capacities as behavior. Since perceiving, thinking, and willing or feeling are recognized human capacities, they are defined as behavior. Thus, to perceive a light, or to fail to perceive it, is a behavior. Similarly, to make a decision after analyzing a situation, is a behavior. As well, to feel angry in an incident and desire revenge, is a behavior. When we consider the behavior of individuals engaged in a group activity, we can qualify the area of behavior by reference to the group activity. Thus we have specialized interests such as food behavior, smoking behavior, crime behavior, sexual behavior, and of course, driving behavior.

Since ancient times there has been agreement among philosophers that human capacities are organized into three distinct groups corresponding to the threefold human nature: the will, the understanding, and the actions of an individual. Modern psychologists also function within this threefold system of behavior. What pertains to the behavior of the will is called affective behavior and includes affections, feelings, motives, needs and everything that pertains to the goal-directedness of people's actions. For example, signaling before changing lanes is embedded in an affective context: the driver maintains the motive of avoiding driving errors. In the absence of this motive, errors are committed and the driver fails to signal. Learning to maintain the motive of avoiding driving errors is an important affective driving skill. Frequently, affective driving errors occur when conflict between motives is experienced, as when a driver is in a hurry and speeds: the feeling of wanting to be cautious and law abiding is weakened by the feeling of urge to hurry and not be too late. The theory of driving behavior must include the capacity to explain the content and organization of affective driving skills and errors.

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What pertains to the behavior of the understanding is called cognitive behavior and includes cognitions, thoughts, reasonings and everything that pertains to the decision-making and analyzing aspects of people's actions. For example, signaling before changing lanes is not only embedded in an affective (motivational) context, but in a cognitive context as well: the driver processes information by common sense logic. Learning to make correct judgments in routine driving incidents, is an important cognitive driving skill. Frequently, cognitive driving errors occur when an illogical sequence of interpretation leads to an incorrect decision: I know there is nobody behind me, therefore I won't bother signaling this time. This erroneous decision overlooks or ignores several reasons that should be taken into account such as: There may be somebody in my blind spot, or There may be somebody from front that might turn in, or There may be a policeman watching. A comprehensive theory of driving behavior will have the capacity to identify correct and incorrect decision-making, and specify how cognitions interact with affections to produce overt acts.

What pertains to the individual's overt actions is called sensorimotor or psychomotor behavior and includes all experience that is mediated through sensory and motor channels. For example, signaling before changing lanes is a complex psychomotor action involving eye-hand coordination, motor readiness to apply the brakes if needed, twisting of neck to look behind, changes in breathing pattern, and less visible endocrinal and neurological changes. As well, silent or overt verbalizations may occur involving the articulatory system (e.g., "Oops, I didn't see that car!" or "Ok, now, watch out for that car"). A realistic driving theory should include the specification of the sequence of psychomotor or sensorimotor actions of drivers and how these are influenced or conditioned by the on-going affective and cognitive context.

The Basic Hypotheses in Traffic Psychology

Self-witnessing produces a protocol analysis which brings personal awareness. This awareness or new insight provides an opportunity or occasion for self-modification of one's traffic behavior from anti-social to peaceful and altruistic. UNWITNESSED DRIVING is responsible for TRAFFIC INSANITY! Unwitnessed road use is responsible for the current barbaric conditions on public roads. SELF-WITNESSING is the cure for traffic insanity. According to an international maxim: The unexamined life is not worth living . Similarly:

The unwitnessed ride is not worth having!

The SELF-WITNESSING TOPIC FOCUS is the method for traffic psychology. When drivers VERBALIZE what they are witnessing, as if giving a blow by blow description of what's going on in terms of their feelings, thoughts, and actions, then they are maintaining a self-witnessing focus in traffic. The act of verbalizing brings awareness of oneself as a driver. The verbalizations produce a PROTOCOL, a term related to "protocol analysis," and this transcript, whether mental or out loud, is the self-witnessing focus. SELF-AWARENESS is the result. New insights about one's DRIVING PERSONALITY and CHARACTER is brought to one's knowledge of self as a road user. The production of protocols in self-witnessing is automatic, that is, it is within the normal sociolinguistic repertoire of ordinary speakers.

Cognitively, it is part of people's HIGHER MENTAL PROCESSES or abilities. Self-witnessing produces self-awareness as a driver or road user. Self-awareness produces new knowledge about the self and thus, new reactions.

The purpose of traffic psychology is to manage these reactions in a traffic-appropriate way. To become a TRAFFIC PSYCHOLOGIST means to acquire self-management skills in self-witnessing and in self-modification of one's own traffic and road use behavior. Examples include:

Self-witnessing is a CULTURAL RESOURCE since it produces new, more civilized exchanges and mental rituals. It reveals the existence of injurious processes such as:

negative mental rituals
positive mental rituals

Self-witnessing produces NEW MENTAL FORMS -- new rituals, new ideas, new sentiments -- which facilitate their spread throughout society through MORPHIC RESONANCE (interiorly) and through MODELING (externally).

Note: The expression "MORPHIC resonance" comes from Rupert Sheldrake's postmodern proposal that new mental forms and patterns exist outside time and space and relate to each other by similarity of form. The more people re-create a particular new form, the easier it is for others to acquire it.

Automatization of Driving Behavior

Every driver goes through the experience of getting habituated to the driving environment. New drivers have to concentrate hard on their driving. They are tense and often bewildered by the onrush of stimuli in traffic. If you ride with them, you notice that they frequently have to interrupt their conversation to take care of an ongoing incident such as switching lanes or making a left turn. After some weeks or months, most of us have learned to automatize our driving actions. Almost thoughtlessly we can execute complex maneuvers, weaving across lanes, turning signals on and off, making turns, passing, and so on. Meanwhile we continue the conversation uninterrupted, and there is hardly any evidence that our mind is engaged in the business of driving. We've reached the automated stage of driving.

Driving is one of the most complex tasks that ordinary American citizens are called upon to perform on a routine basis How good are we at it? There are approximately 3 million miles of highways in the nation. Every year a little over 3 million accidents are reported nationwide, which result in over 50,000 deaths and hundreds of thousands of serious injuries. This works out to be about one serious accident per year for every mile of highway pavement. Is this a reasonable record or not? It's difficult to say since there are no control data. Since there are over 100 million licensed drivers in our country, and if each driver on the average travels 10,000 miles a year, then Americans drive about 1 trillion miles every year, or one thousand billion miles. This works out to only one accident for every 300,000 miles driven. This sounds pretty good. However, from an absolute perspective, it does seem that over 3 million accidents every year, and 52,000 deaths, is indeed a frightful human carnage and national tragedy that we should try to improve on if at all possible.

Does the automated driving phenomenon contribute to our driving performance? On the one hand, the Automatization of our driving habits not only saves us from stress and interrupted conversations, but also makes us safer drivers. If we stay relaxed behind the wheel and our mind is properly alert, we can rely on the body to do most of the routine decisions and acts in driving. A commentator of the national driving pattern recently characterized the American driver as "the two-second driver." He was referring to the general habit of following one another on crowded highways at such a close distance that we have two seconds at the most to avert catastrophe up ahead of us. A dramatic symptom of this highway density is the horrendous pile up phenomenon that occurs when 20, 30, or even 100 cars get involved in a single mass crash. Another less dramatic but much more frequent symptom is the driving stress we experience on a daily basis as we repeatedly slam on our brakes to avoid crashing into the car ahead of us, or watch with horror in our rear view mirror the car behind us screeching to a halt a few inches behind us. It must surely be one of the great miracles of our time that, week after week, the majority of us escape unscathed from this daily ordeal.

The automatization of our driving may be an important element in this miraculous escape. If we had to rely on our conscious attention and decision making, few of us would be able to avoid accidents. When the body takes over in driving, it manages the rapid fire, split second decision and action sequences effectively and near flawlessly. Let the body do the driving for you. It is amazingly competent. When you're driving in the left lane of a fast moving, dense cohort of cars you have no time to analyze the situation consciously. It is not unusual, for example, to travel in the left lane of the Pali Highway at 50 miles an hour sandwhiched in between two cars who are barely one car length from you. When the car ahead slams on the brakes you have less than one second to do likewise, or else...There is no time for thinking. Your leg automatically leaves the gas pedal and finds the brake pedal in a fraction of a second. Your leg knows what to do by itself. It is conditioned to the red glow of the break lights ahead of you. The lights flash and your leg responds. You don't even miss a single beat of your favorite song being played on the radio.

It's not just your leg that is thus trained. Next time you're driving notice what your eyes are doing. They constantly move, as if of themselves, systematically scanning the road ahead of you and constantly checking the rear view mirror. A good driver scans the open space ahead left and right. and checks the rear view mirror every 5 seonds. The eyes know what's going on.

The motion of vehicles in traffic is a joint function of road conditions and driver reactions. The psychological environment consists of feelings and thoughts that influence a driver's reactions to perceived events in the physical environment. This relation may be diagrammed and explored using Kurt Lewin's field theory of behavior. Self-witnessing reports of drivers who tape recorded themselves in traffic can be used as a data source for mapping their affective and cognitive environment. Recurrent structural elements are thus uncovered. Drivers automatically stick to each other and travel in cohorts and sub-cohorts. Driving alone or between cohorts is aversive. Danger zones are areas created by high risk maneuvers such as weaving or tailgating. These occur in response to predictable situations. Other psychological components observed include the 'law of least effort,' which creates reluctance to use the brakes when needed, and mental violence, which is formed to symbolic exchanges with other drivers that arouse aggressive impluses.

Traffic Psychology Table
Taxonomy of Driving Behavior (1990)


A3 (+ or -)

C3 (+ or -)

S3 (+ or -)

Level 3

in Driving

in Driving

Sensorimotor Responsibility
in Driving

(1) altruism and morality
(10) egotism and deficient conscience

positive dramatizations and mental health
negative dramatizations and insanity

enjoyment and satisfaction
stress and depression

Level 2

A2 (+ or -)

C2 (+ or -)

S2 (+ or -)

Affective Safety
in Driving

Cognitive Safety
in Driving

Sensorimotor Safety
in Driving


defensive driving and equity
aggressiveness opportunism

objective attributions
biased attributions

polite exchanges and calmness
rude exchanges and overreaction


Level 1

A1 (+ or -)

C1 (+ or -)

S1(+ or -)


Affective Proficiency
in Driving

Cognitive Proficiency
in Driving

Sensorimotor Proficiency
in Driving


respect for regulations and self-control
disrespect for authority and deficient self-control

knowledge and awareness
untrained and faulty thinking

correct actions and alertness
faulty actions and inattention


Classified Inventory
of Psychological Aspects of Driving Behavior
Definition of the 18 Categories

The numbering scheme in the taxonomy follows this pattern

7 and 16

8 and 17

9 and 18

4 and 13

5 and 14

6 and 15

1 and 10

2 and 11

3 and 12

Level 3

+A3 = 7
-A3 = 16

+C3 = 8
-C3 = 17

+S3 = 8
-S3 = 18

Level 2

+A2 = 4
-A2 = 13

+C2 = 5
-C2 = 14

+S3 = 6
-S3 = 15

Level 1

+A1 = 1
-A1 = 10

+C1 = 2
-C1 = 11

+S1 = 3
-S1 = 12


Level 3



+A3 (7) Altruism and Morality

  • Applying a moral or religious precept to one's own driving actions, thoughts, and impluses.
  • Being fearful of causing injury or damage to someone.
  • Caring about others' feelings.
  • Being desirous to facilitate the intentions or goals of other highway users.
  • Etc.



-A3 (16) Egotism and Deficient Conscience

  • Feeling vengeful or having the desire to be injurious to other highway users.
  • Wanting to retaliate against others.
  • Disregarding or minimizing the feelings and rights of other highway users.
  • Denying one's guilt or being hostile when told of one's faulty actions.
  • Ignoring the comfort and safety of passengers.
  • Etc.



+C3 (8) Positive Dramatizations and Mental Health

  • Imagining or predicting the consequences of one's driving actions or those of others.
  • De-dramatizing or neutralizing one's negative feelings in a driving situation.
  • Making up driving scenarios that are protective of people and property.
  • Using facts (such as accident rates) to re-assert one's commitment to safe driving.
  • Etc.



-C3 (17) Negative Dramatizations and Madness

  • Making up mad driving scenarios.
  • Attaching preposterous symbolic significance to driving exchanges (e.g., being overtaken is reprehensible).
  • Thinking that one is being personally singled out as the object of attack or condemnation by other drivers.
  • Denigrating the character of drivers by their physical appearance or that of their car.
  • Thinking that you are isolated in your car that no one can see you.
  • Indulging in fantasy or daydreams while driving.
  • Etc.



+S3 (9) Enjoyment and Satisfaction

  • Enjoying the drive, the scenery, the deliberate and controlled movements in driving.
  • Experiencing a heightened sense of consciousness and relaxed good feeling during driving.
  • Engaging in productive mental work while driving such as reflection, planning, making resolutions.
  • Maintaining a good mood while driving.
  • Expressing appreciation for the good things in driving (comfort, convenience beauty, importance.
  • Etc.



-S3 (18) Stress and Depression

  • Letting a despondent mood or lack of energy influence one's driving for the worse.
  • Experiencing loss of self-esteem when observing one's own driving errors.
  • Feeling agitated, anxious and fearful while driving.
  • Etc.


Level 2



+A2 (4) Defensiveness and Fairness or Equity

  • Striving to be fair to other highway users.
  • Being desirous of avoiding to hold up other drivers or interfering with their goals.
  • Maintaining a prudent orientation towards the potential errors of other highway users.
  • Etc.



-A2 (13) Aggressiveness and Opportunism

  • Being motivated by a competitive impulse to get ahead of other drivers.
  • Feeling angry or condemnatory towards highway users.
  • Feeling intimidated or stigmatized by the actions of other drivers.
  • Wanting the pressure or coerce other drivers.
  • Etc.



+C2 (5) Objective Attributions

  • Making up reasonable explanations for the intentions or behaviors of other highway users.
  • Giving objective reasons for one's driving actions or feelings.
  • Seeing things through the eyes or perspective of other highway users.
  • Analyzing a driving situation to make sense of what's going on. .
  • Etc.



-C2 (14) Subjective Attributions

  • Making up prejudiced, unfounded or presumptive explanations for others' driving behavior.
  • Misinterpreting the causes of one's own driving actions or justifying one's faulty behavior.
  • Attributing to others the cause of one's own frustrations in a driving situation.
  • Finding a personal justification for doing the wrong thing (e.g., speaking or failing to yield when in a hurry).
  • Thinking that you are isolated in your car that no one can see you.
  • Indulging in fantasy or daydreams while driving.
  • Etc.



+S2 (6) Polite Exchanges and Calmness

  • Remaining calm and resisting pressure in the face of provocation.
  • Recovering quickly after becoming upset with another driver. .
  • Inhibiting aggressive or denigrating gestures or words against other highway users or passengers. .
  • Maintaining a good mood while driving.
  • Expressing appreciation for the good things in driving (comfort, convenience beauty, importance.
  • Etc.



-S2 (15) Rude Exchanges and Overreaction

  • Insulting other highway users or passengers in words or gestures.
  • Overreacting to another driver's rude behavior.
  • Complaining about other highway users or denigrating (bad-mouthing) them.
  • Pressuring or coercing another highway user or passenger.
  • Etc.


Level 1



+A1 (1) Respect for Regulations and Self-Confidence

  • Striving to be accurate and to avoid making errors in driving.
  • Having a sense of respect for traffic regulations and authority.
  • Being desirous of obeying traffic signs and laws.
  • Being patient or self-controlled while waiting at traffic lights, stop signs, or traffic flow delays.
  • Being desirous of obeying traffic signs and laws.
  • Gaining self-confidence in one's driving.
  • Etc.



-A1 (10) Disrespect for Authority and Lack of Self-Confidence

  • Feeling dislike for traffic regulations or authority figures, including police and traffic officials.
  • Experiencing frustration and insecurity in a routine driving situation.
  • Feeling impatient at the pace of traffic.
  • Etc.



+C1 (2) Knowledge and Awareness

  • Learning and memorizing driving principles and facts.
  • Observing or noting one's mistakes in driving and those of other drivers.
  • Becoming more aware of one's driving actions, thoughts, and feelings.
  • Realizing how one's driving behaviors is influenced by mood and environment.
  • Mentally rehearsing correct action sequences or principles of good driving.
  • Etc.



-C1 (11) Untrained and Faulty Thinking

  • Believing that driving at the speed limit is too slow.
  • Deciding to watch out for police instead of slowing down. .
  • Believing it is safer to speed than to drive at speed limits.
  • Deciding that it's always all right to drive 10 to 15 miles above the speed limit.
  • Assuming that there is no legal speed limit somewhere (e.g., parking lots).
  • Believing one is in the wrong when actually doing the right thing.
  • Assuming one doesn't need lifelong driver education or constant improvement in one's driving.
  • Etc.



+S1 (7) Correct Actions and Alertness

  • Performing correct actions in routine driving situations.
  • Paying attention to signs and being alert to other highway users.
  • Keeping up with traffic without breaking the speed limit.
  • Using verbalizations or self-regulatory sentences as reminders for better self-control and alertness.
  • Expressing appreciation for the good things in driving (comfort, convenience beauty, importance.
  • Etc.



-S1 (16) Faulty Actions and Inattention

  • Executing an incorrect or illegal act in a routine driving situation.
  • Driving with insufficient concentration or with a sense of distraction.
  • Not noticing signs or being insufficiently alert to traffic conditions.
  • Etc.


Please visit my other site
for up to date articles, news analyses, surveys, interviews, and more.

Bibliography of Driver Behavior and Driving

Socio-Cultural Methods of Managing Driving Behavior in Society


Road Rage   and Aggressive Driving
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