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Teaching Students Why People Drive Aggressively and How to Prevent It
Wickens, C. M., Mann, R. E., & Wiesenthal, D. L. (2013). Addressing driver aggression: Contributions from psychological science. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 386–391.
When it comes to driving, people can be either lethal or peaceful. Jim punches his BMW’s gas paddle to chase down a careless motorist, risking catastrophe as he hunts down his automotive prey. Sally also encounters cavalier drivers. But her sunny disposition averts anger. She waves texting pedestrians across busy streets. She shrugs when people tailgate her. And she accepts traffic jams as opportunities to catch up on missed podcasts. Why does Jim drive aggressively — and how can we get him to drive like Sally?
Police officers have power and authority. What they lack is the scientific method to help them predict who is at risk for driving aggressively and how to reduce that aggression. Researchers Christine Wickens, Robert Mann, and David Wiesenthal (2013) identify factors that increase driver aggression:
- An aggressive personality
- Being male
- Job stress
- Being hurried
- Hot temperatures
More than 30,000 Americans die each year in vehicle accidents, half due to driver aggression (AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 2009). Teaching undergraduates about what psychological science contributes in predicting and preventing driver aggression can benefit both intellectual and personal growth. To take this cutting-edge research into the classroom, instructors may consider the following two activities.
The first activity shows that most people think they’re more peaceful than the average person when it comes to driving. First, define driver aggression as any behavior that violates a traffic law or that involves anger expressions that result from hostility toward another motorist (Wickens et al., 2013). Next, have students rank their aggressive driving from 1st (meaning that nearly everyone else has higher driver aggression levels) to 99th (meaning that they have higher driver aggression levels than almost everyone). Instructors then ask students to raise their hands if they are above or below the 50th percentile.
Unless you’re teaching a group of rambunctious drivers, the results should be clear. Most students will rate themselves in the bottom 50th percentile on driver aggression. This relates to the often replicated finding that people believe they’re better than the average Joe or Jane on desirable traits, such as being a good driver. “Mathematically, we could expect about half of the class to raise their hand,” Wickens said, when she asks students whether they’re “above-average drivers.” “But I can assure you that this never happens. Usually, nearly every student raises a hand, demonstrating a regular finding in the literature that we are often over-confident in our driving skills.”
The second activity encourages students to consider cross-cultural differences in driving behavior. Aggressive driving may occur when people do not appreciate cultural differences in driving behavior. Wickens recommends showing an episode of the Discovery Channel television show Don’t Drive Here. Ask students to take the perspective of the host and imagine that they are actually driving in that culture. After watching the episode, instructors may ask students whether driving in that particular culture would frustrate them and why. Why do other cultures have different driving expectations? By making sense of their possible negative reaction, students may be better able to cope with and appreciate cultural differences in driving practices.
Annually, car accidents rob thousands of people of their lives. Most vehicle fatalities occur because of aggressive driving, which underscores the importance of educating students about scientific approaches to predicting and preventing driver aggression. Knowing why people drive aggressively is the first step. Putting that knowledge to work may save lives.
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We specialize in road rage treatment, anger management training and anger management counseling at D’Arienzo Psychological Group. Assessment and Counseling are available for disruptive physicians to disruptive employees, to unruly and angry teenagers. Call us today for help at 904-379-8094. Anger management is available in person and by online anger management counseling.