University of Hawaii, Spring 2006, Psychology 409a G24

Seminar on Driving Psychology

Dr. Leon James, Instructor


Driving Psychology Lecture Notes
For G24

(version 6a)





Introduction: The Driver's Threefold Self

Driving Psychology Theory and Charts

Reading List and References

Note: When preparing for orals, be sure to also consult the link given for each table.


1. Introduction:
The Driver's Threefold Self


This seminar on driving psychology will give you the opportunity to examine driving behavior in detail by identifying the sub-components of driving habits in the three domains of behavior: affective, cognitive, and sensorimotor.


The objective of the course is for you to acquire self-witnessing and self-modification skills in the area of your driving behavior. Students who don't drive regularly can alter the objective to focus on witnessing the driving behavior of others and training them to modify their behavior. Alternately, they can do a report on being a pedestrian or a rider.


Driving behavior is defined along three interacting domains called "the driver's threefold self." The driver's "affective self" operates the feelings and motivations we maintain behind the wheel. The "cognitive self" operates the thinking and reasoning we do behind the wheel. The driver's "sensorimotor self" operates the sensations, perceptions,  and motor acts we perform behind the wheel.


The driver's threefold self is a joint product of biology, culture, socialization, morality, and rationality. As children we acquire the driving style of our parents, other adults, and characters in the media (TV, movies, magazines, cartoons, commercials). By the time we begin to drive in our adolescence we have been exposed to years of aggressive driving behaviors in all three domains:

(a) hostile feelings (driver's affective self)

(b) biased thoughts (driver's cognitive self)

(c)  aggressive actions (driver's sensorimotor self)


Surveys show that most drivers report experiencing these negative feelings and acting upon them by driving aggressively or engaging in road rage behaviors. Take a look at some of the surveys I have conducted -- they are posted on the Web at:


When drivers reason under the influence of negative emotions, they tend to misinterpret the intentions of other drivers. Most drivers admit that they take unnecessary risks when feeling impatient or enraged, including breaking laws on a regular basis, and driving emotionally impaired. For example:

  • going too fast for conditions

  • tailgating

  • following too close

  • changing lanes without signaling

  • going through red light

  • engaging the intersection after the light turned yellow

  • racing

  • driving after drinking

  • yelling obscenities at drivers, cyclists, or pedestrians

  • darting in and out of lanes

  • being impatient and taking risks that endanger other drivers and passengers

  • feeling irrationally enraged at traffic and other drivers

  • becoming distracted by multitasking behind the wheel

  • Add your own here:_____________________


Along with Dr. Nahl, we have pioneered the method of self-witnessing the driver's threefold self. Students in prior generations have demonstrated that they can apply the self-witnessing method to themselves. This method consists of the systematic self-observation of one's emotions, thoughts, and actions while driving. Speaking your thoughts out loud greatly helps you to become aware of what you're thinking and feeling. The technique is described in our textbook (Road Rage and Aggressive Driving).


You will be publishing two reports on the Web this semester as part of your contribution to the generational curriculum on driving psychology (report 2) and on information literacy (report 1).  Thousands of people who navigate the Web find these generational student reports through Web search engines when they are looking for topics on driving or information literacy. Your contribution will contribute first, to yourself for improving your driving personality and your information literacy skills; second, for future students who will be reading your reports, and third, for the public at large. Your research, observations, and conclusions will be beneficial to others who will read your reports in the ensuing years. Long after you're no longer a student, your generational reports will still be serving the public.


2. Driving Psychology Theory and Charts


Here is a selection from the articles by Dr. James and Dr. Nahl that are posted on their Web site at The specific address of the document is given below each Chart or Selection. You will find explanations for them there.





Driver Behavior as Skills and Errors in Three Domains






I've got to be careful here. Don't want to cut anybody off.

This person looks like he's in a hurry to get in. I better let him in.

(Waving and smiling:) Go ahead.





I wish I could give that guy a piece of my mind.

I don't think people like that should be allowed on the road

(Yelling:) "You stupid idiot, why don't you watch where you're going!"


The above comes from:



Table 2

Behavioral Zones of Driving


Affective Responsibility
in Driving
A3 (+ or -)

Cognitive Responsibility

in Driving
C3 (+ or -)

Sensorimotor Responsibility
in Driving
S3 (+ or -)

(7) altruism and morality

(16) egotism and deficient conscience

(8 )positive dramatizations and mental health

(17) negative dramatizations and insanity

(9) enjoyment and satisfaction
(18) stress and depression


Affective Safety
in Driving
A2 (+ or -)

Cognitive Safety
in Driving
C2 (+ or -)

Sensorimotor Safety
in Driving
S2 (+ or -)

(4) defensive driving and equity
(13) aggressiveness opportunism

(5) objective attributions
(14) biased attributions

(6) polite exchanges and calmness
(15) rude exchanges and overreaction

Affective Proficiency
in Driving
A1 (+ or -)

Cognitive Proficiency
in Driving
C1 (+ or -)

Sensorimotor Proficiency
in Driving
S1(+ or -)

(1) respect for regulations and self-control
(10) disrespect for authority and deficient self-control

(2) knowledge and awareness

(11) untrained and faulty thinking

(3) correct actions and alertness

(12) faulty actions and inattention


The above comes from:




Table 3

Two Stages of a Driving Personality Makeover Plan


Stage 1--Avoiding Being an Aggressive Driver

Affective Level
Overcoming my resistance to change


Cognitive Level
Learning to do rational analyses of traffic incidents

Sensorimotor Level
Acting out civil behavior

  • committing myself to inhibit or mitigate states of anger and retaliation
  • making it acceptable for passenger to complain or make suggestions
  • making it unacceptable for myself to ridicule or demean other drivers
  • activating higher motives within myself such as love of order and fair play, public spiritedness, charity, kindness to strangers
  •  reasoning against  my attribution errors (It's always their fault.  It's never my fault)

  • counteracting my self-serving bias in how I view incidents

  • acquiring more socialized self-regulatory sentences I can say to myself

  • waving, smiling, signaling

  • not crowding, not rushing in, not swearing

  • not aggressing against passengers

  • pretending that I'm in a good mood even when not


Stage 2--Becoming a Supportive Driver

Affective Level
Maintaining a supportive orientation towards other drivers


Cognitive Level
Analyzing driving situations objectively

Sensorimotor Level
Behaving in a cooperative style

        feeling responsible for errors and seeking opportunities to make reparations

        feeling regret at my unfriendly behaviors and impulses

        feeling good about behaving with civility or kindness

        feeling appreciation when being given advice by passenger

        being forgiving of others' mistakes and weaknesses

        acknowledging and knowing my driving errors

        planning and rehearsing the modification of those habits

        analyzing other drivers' behaviors objectively or impartially



        anticipating the needs of other drivers and being helpful to them

        verbalizing nice sentiments

        enjoying the ride and relaxing





The above comes from:



Table 4

The AWM Approach in Driver Self-Modification


        First step:  Acknowledging that I have this particular negative habit. (A)

        Second step:  Witnessing myself performing this negative habit. (W)

        Third step:  Modifying this habit. (M)


For example, having picked the item "feeling regret at my unfriendly behaviors and impulses" for today's trip to work on, constitutes step 1, because selecting it is an act of acknowledgment.  Then, the driver has to witness this behavior during the trip.  In other words, drivers need to stay alert, maintaining focus on their emotions as they drive.  As soon as we detect the presence of hostile feelings, we need to follow it up with sentiments of regret or some form of disagreement with the hostile feeling.  This will serve to weaken the negative affective habit of entertaining hostile feelings towards other drivers on the road. The normal habit acquired in our socialization, would be to give in to the initial hostile impulse, to magnify it, to rehearse it several times.  All these habitual maladaptive procedures need to be interfered with or interrupted by means of the sentiments of regret that we introject into the event.  This constitutes the modification.  When the threestep process is practiced on repeated trips, the old affective habit sequence gradually weakens and is replaced by a new positive affective habit sequence.  The cyclical process is repeated item by item.  It is apparent from this why driver self-improvement needs to go on on a lifelong basis, and why social methods of motivation, like QDC groups, are needed to help drivers to persist in it and not give up.


Basic Principles in Driving Psychology  (this is part of Table 4)

These can be stated as follows:

1.      Driving is a complex of behaviors acting together as cultural norms.


2.      Driving norms exist in three domains: affective, cognitive, and sensorimotor.


3.      Driving norms are transmitted by parents, other adults, magazines, movies, TV.


4.      The primary affective driving norms for this generation are:

  • valuing territoriality, dominance, and competition as a desirable driving style

  • condoning intolerance of diversity (in needs and competencies of other drivers)

  • supporting retribution ethics (or vigilante motives with desire to punish or amend)

  • social acceptance of impulsivity and risk taking in driving

  • condoning aggressiveness, disrespect, and the expression of hostility

These affective norms are negative and anti-social. Socio-cultural methods must be used to reduce the attractiveness of these aggressive norms and to increase the attractiveness of positive and cooperative driver roles.


5.      The primary cognitive driving norms are:

  •  inaccurate risk assessment

  • biased and self-serving explanations of driving incidents

  •  lack of emotional intelligence as a driver

  •  low or underdeveloped level of moral involvement (dissociation and egotism)

These cognitive norms are inaccurate and inadequate. Self-training and self-improvement techniques must be taught so that drivers can better manage risk and regulate their own emotional behavior.


6.      The primary sensorimotor driving norms are:

  • automatized habits (un-self-conscious or unaware of oneís style and risk)

  • errors of perception (e.g., distance, speed, initiating wrong action)

  • lapses (in oneís attention or performance due to fatigue, sleepiness, distraction, drugs, boredom, inadequate training or preparation)

These sensorimotor norms are inadequate and immature. Lifelong driver self-improvement exercises are necessary to reach more competent habits of driving.


7.      Driving norms and behavior can be changed by socio-cultural management techniques that create in the driver a desire for change, by weakening negative norms and strengthening positive norms of driving.  Since driving is a habit in three domains of behavior, driving self-improvement is possible and effective in improving this habit. Specific elements in each domain must be addressed in recognition of the fact that driving consists of thousands of individual habits or sub-skills, each of which can be identified, measured, and improved, on a long term basis.


8.      Drivers maintain strong resistance to externally imposed restrictions and regulations so that these methods alone are not sufficient to create real changes in driver behavior. Socio-cultural methods of influence need to be used, such as QDCs (Quality Driving Circles).  Driving Psychology uses socio-cultural methods that act as change agents. Group dynamic forces are powerful influencing agents that can overcome driversí resistance to change. This is achieved by group activities that focus on this resistance in an explicit way, and afterwards, are put into conscious practice through follow up self-witnessing activities behind the wheel. These informal groups are called QDCs (Quality Driving Circles) and their function is to exert a long term or permanent socio-moral influence on the driving quality of its members. This positive influence is exerted by members on each other when they adhere to a Standard QDC Curriculum, as approved by designated safety officials or agencies on a regional or national basis. The QDC Curriculum is created through the principles of driving psychology.


9.      Driving is a semi-conscious activity since much of it depends on automatized habits acquired through culture and experience over several years. Thus, the driverís self-assessment is not objective or accurate, until trained in objective self-assessment procedures.


10.  Driving inherently involves taking risks, making errors, and losing emotional self-control. Thus, drivers need to be trained in risk taking, error recovery, and emotional control under emergency or provocation conditions.


11.  Obtaining a driverís license cannot be considered the end of driver training. Continued driver training in the form of guided lifelong self-improvement activities is essential for acquiring new skills. These new skills are needed as driving gets more complex with technology such as managing car audio devices , reading maps on screens , using computers , note taking , talking on phone or radio , keeping to a schedule , eating, etc.  The Standard QDC Curriculum (Quality Driving Circles) needs to be kept up-dated continuously and the latest additions are to be made available to all functioning QDCs in a region. These up-dates are to focus on new developments that technology brings to vehicles and roads, all of which require the acquisition of new skills by drivers.


The above comes from:



Table 5
Emotionally Intelligent Driver Personality Skills

Driver Competence Skills



Emotionally Intelligent


1. Focusing on self vs. blaming others or the situation "This traffic is impossibly slow. Whatís wrong with these jerks. Theyíre driving like idiots."
"Iím feeling very impatient today. Everything seems to tick me off."
2. Understanding how feelings and thoughts act together
"Iím angry, scared, outraged. How can they do this to me."
"I feel angry, scared, outraged when I think about what could have happened."
3. Realizing that anger is something we choose vs. thinking it is provoked
"They make me so mad when they do that." "I make myself so mad when they do that."
4. Being concerned about consequences vs. giving in to impulse "I just want to give this driver a piece of my mind. I just want him to know how I feel." "If I respond to this provocation I lose control over the situation. Itís not worth it."
5. Showing respect for others and their rights vs. thinking only of oneself
"They better stay out of my way. Iím in no mood for putting up with them. Out of my way folks."

"I wish there was no traffic but itís not up to me. These people have to get to their destination too."
6. Accepting traffic as collective team work vs. seeing it as individual competition "Driving is about getting ahead. I get a jolt out of beating a red light or finding the fastest lane. Itís me vs. everybody else."
"I try to keep pace with the traffic realizing that my movements can slow others downólike switching lanes to try to get ahead."
7. Recognizing the diversity of drivers and their needs and styles vs. blaming them for what they choose to do
"How can they be so stupid? Theyíre talking on the phone instead of paying attention to the road."
"I need to be extra careful around drivers using a hand held cellular phone since they may be distracted."
8. Practicing positive role models vs. negative "Come on, buddy, speed up or Iíll be on your tail. Go, go. Whatís wrong with you. Thereís no one ahead."
"This driver is going slower than my desires. Now I can practice the art of patience and respect for the next few minutes."
9.  Learning to inhibit the impulse to criticize by developing a sense of driving humor "I canít stand all these idiots on the road. They slow down when they should speed up. They gawk, they crawl, anything but drive."
"Iím angry, Iím mad
Therefore Iíll act calm, Iíll smile and not compete.  Already I feel better.  Be my guest, enter ahead."
10. Taking driving seriously by becoming aware of oneís mistakes and correcting them "Iím an excellent driver, assertive and competent, with a clean accident recordójust a few tickets here and there." "I monitor myself as a driver and keep a driving log of my mistakes. I think itís important to include thoughts and feelings, not just the overt acts."

The above comes from: 


Table 6





  • fatalities (500,000  per decade)
  • injuries (25 million per decade)
  • dollars (250 billion per year)
  • long-term loss of health
  • increased stress levels in daily life (hassles and concerns)
  • fear and threat on streets and highways
  • weakening of our moral IQ   (condoning cynicism and aggressiveness)
  • lowering of our emotional IQ (reptilian driving)
  • promotion of learned negativity in public places leading to automotive vigilantism and widely deployed electronic surveillance systems
  • lowered productivity when arriving at work mad and exhausted
  • learned cynicism (aggressive driving norms and disrespect for regulations) leading to  alienation and disunion among highway citizens
  • greater air pollution caused by the emotional use of the gas pedal ( getting less gas per mileage)
  • breeding the next generation of aggressive drivers, continuing the cultural cycle (our children in the car imbibing our cynicism and aggressiveness

The above comes from:


Exercise: Scenario Analysis to Develop Critical Thinking

"Dear DrDriving,

I'm a 16 year old boy and I was driving in tandem with a friend who is unfamiliar with driving in that area and on the freeway. It was almost midnight and we were driving to our homes. I had a friend from work who invited us to a party but we couldn't find his place so we drove back. I lost the address and all we did was drive around then started to go home. We did not have anything to drink and nobody had taken any drugs.

We got onto the freeway and while we were driving, a black SUV pulled up really fast and close behind my friend's car-who was in the center lane. I was in the left lane and wanted to stay close to my friend so he would not get lost. The SUV swerved around my friend's car to the slow lane and went past really fast. He started to swerve around all the other cars ahead of us and we thought he was gone.

A little bit later he was held up in the traffic and my friend and I were both in the left lane and passed him. My friend and I had to change to another freeway that had only two lanes for a while. The SUV took the same exit and my friend and I thought it was funny that he was behind us and we slowed down in both of the lanes (stupid plan). He pulled up behind me and then behind my friend and began pointing a gun. We got really scared and did everything we could to get away. He followed us really fast but never tried to pass us. This went on for miles. We were all swerving through traffic. I think I was driving about 90 miles an hour. Sometimes we thought he was gone and then we would see that he was just kind of hiding behind other cars. We got close to our exit and I started to flash my lights and honk at my friend so that he knew to take the exit. When we took the exit we saw the SUV follow us then pull over on the off-ramp.

When we got onto the road we were met by lots of police cars. We ended up with tickets for reckless driving and we are going to plead not guilty. We think that this driver did something illegal and could have caused an accident. We know that we were stupid and added to the problem but we think that he's an adult and he was the one who was making it into a battle. What do you think? Do you have any suggestions how to handle this? Thanks."


The Chart below identifies the specific chain of steps that together make up this road rage incident. There are 13 bad driving behaviors these two teenagers performed in sequence, as evidenced by their own description of the events (middle column). Your comments should answer two questions: (a) how does each step contribute to their trouble (focus on the bold words in column 2), and (b) how could they have backed out of it at each step by doing something else. Have your friends or family members also complete the exercise, then get together to compare and discuss everybody's solutions. Doing this exercise will strengthen your emotional intelligence as a driver by making you more aware of how your behavior influences other people's behavior on highways.

 Table 7

Scenario Analysis of Teen Drivers' Unrecognized Road Rage Behavior

Emotionally challenged behavior

Segment from the letter

State how each step contributes to trouble.

Suggest smarter behavior.

1. Playing games on the highway.

"I'm a 16 year old boy and I was driving in tandem with a friend."



2. Driving after curfew

"It was almost midnight"



3. Losing the address and going anyway

"I lost the address and all we did was drive around then started to go home"



4. Driving abreast occupying center lane and fast (left) lane

"I was in the left lane and wanted to stay close to my friend--who was in the center lane"



5. Blocking the way so the SUV had to pass in the right (slow) lane

"SUV pulled up really fast and close behind my friend's car-who was in the center lane"



6. Discounting the seriousness of the incident

"we thought he was gone"



7. Not realizing they were doing something provocative

"My friend and I were both in the left lane and passed him"



8. Not realizing that the incident has now escalated into a potential duel

"The SUV took the same exit and my friend and I thought it was funny that he was behind us"



9. Finally realizing this is trouble but still acting like they're in a duel, escalating the fight instead of backing down

"we slowed down in both of the lanes (stupid plan). He pulled upÖand began pointing a gun."



10. Engaging in reckless driving--weaving through traffic at high speeds getting away from a chase

"We got really scared and did everything we could to get away. He followed us really fast but never tried to pass us. This went on for miles. We were all swerving through traffic. I think I was driving about 90 miles an hour"



11. Engaging in further provocative behavior by ignoring its potential effect on the pursuer

"I started to flash my lights and honk at my friend so that he knew to take the exit"



12. Trying to diffuse their own responsibility in the sequence of events, as a sort of denial

"We think that this driver did something illegal and could have caused an accident"



13. Hiding behind inadmissible excuses, avoiding to admit what they did wrong, and refusing to think objectively about it

"We know that we were stupid and added to the problem but we think that he's an adult and he was the one who was making it into a battle"




The above is from our textbook:  Road Rage and Aggressive Driving (Chapter 9) by Leon James and Diane Nahl:





Articles on Driving Psychology by Leon James

  1. Traffic Psychology at the University of Hawaii (2003)

  2. Driving Psychology Principles: Part 1

  3. Driving Psychology Principles: Part 2

  4. Dealing With Stress and Pressure in the Vehicle: Taxonomy of Driving Behavior: Affective, Cognitive, Sensorimotor by Leon James and Diane Nahl (2002)

  5. Loosening the Grip of Anger Behind the Wheel (1999)

  6. Aggressive Driving is Emotionally Impaired Driving (2000)

  7. Driving Distracted: Theory and Facts (2002)

  8. Musings of a Traffic Psychologist in Traffic (1985)

  9. Driver Personality Test and Results (1998)

  10. Christian Driving Psychology (1996)


G23 Student Reports on Driving Psychology








G22 Student Reports on Driving Psychology








G21 Student Reports on Driving Psychology





G20 Student Reports on Driving Psychology: Theory and Application

Report 1








Report 2





Report 3







Student Reports on Driving Psychology -- Earlier Generations

Drivers Behaving Badly on TV, Movies, Cartoons, Music Videos, Car Commercials:  DBB Ratings from the Generational Curriculum (1997)

Gender Differences in Driving Norms

Student Reports on Driving Personality Makeovers


Student Reports on Being a Driving Buddy





  1. Drivers Behaving Badly on TV, Movies, Cartoons, Music Videos, Car Commercials:  DBB Ratings from the Generational Curriculum (1997)
                (a) (movies only)
                (b) (cartoons only)
                (c) (commercials only)

  2. Gender Differences in Driving
        (a) You're Driving me Nuts!
        (b) Gender differences in driving
        (c) True or false?
  3. Student Reports on Driving Personality Makeovers (pick any one or two)
        (a) Is it for me?
        (b)  Should I let them cut in? and Tailgating
        (c) Traffic Psychology and Speed Limit Debate

  4. Psychological Aspects of Traffic Flow: Suggestions for Continuing Driver Education  

  5. Stress Factors Experienced by Female Commercial Drivers in the Transportation Industry

  6. What works in changing road user behavior?

  7. Hawaii's courteous driving jamming traffic?

  8. The Effect of Age, Gender, and Type of Car Driven Across the States
  9. A Review of Global Road Accident Fatalities
  10. The Phenomenon of Road Rage: Complexities, Discrepancies and Opportunities for CR Analysis
  11. The influence of car type on drivers' risk taking
  12. Motivating for safety and health
  13. The theory of risk homeostasis
  14. The Social Psychology of Driving
  15. An Investigation of the Safety Implications of Wireless Communications in Vehicles
  16. Traffic psychology at the University of Hawaii
  17. Stress Factors Experienced by Female Commercial Drivers in the Transportation Industry, Tracey M. Bernard, Linda H. Bouck, Wendy S. Young.  American Society of Safety Engineers (retrieved February 2005):
  18. Getting a Grip on Roadway Anger  By Jeanie Lerche Davis. WebMD Medical News
  19. Aggressive driving is emotionally impaired driving  by Dr. Leon James & Dr. Diane Nahl--University of Hawaii
  20. Reference xx. This means you need to find your own article or material to present. Check for materials on the Web and in the electronic resources directory of the UH library online. Once you have your article, email it to Dr. James for approval.


Instructions for your Oral Presentations and Schedule of Presentations:
see Class Home Page:

Back to Leon James Home:

Back to G24 Class Home Page: