Home>Articles on Road Rage and Aggressive Driving

See also: Pedestrian Psychology and Safety | Drivers Against Pedestrians | Pedestrian Rage | Bicycling and Motorcycling | Safe Routes Program  |


Drivers Against Pedestrians:

How to Change Attitudes
Checklist for Your Tendency to Pressure Pedestrians
Your Emotional Intelligence Towards Pedestrians

Leon James, Ph.D.
Diane Nahl, Ph.D.
January 2000

See also: Pedestrian Traffic safety

The spectrum of road users in a community includes drivers, bicyclists, passengers, and pedestrians, all vying with each other for space and pacing rights. It's frightening to realize that drivers kill and injure pedestrians at an alarming rate:

Across California more than 1,000 crosswalks have disappeared in recent years. Traffic engineers claim that crosswalk lines sometimes lull pedestrians into a false sense of security.4 New studies indicate that crosswalks in the middle of a block and at intersections without stop signs or traffic lights often encourage pedestrians to drop their guard and step in front of speeding vehicles. Officials estimate that when a pedestrian is hit, 75 percent of the time the pedestrian is at fault. Safety experts point to these common emotionally unintelligent pedestrian behaviors:

Pedestrians have the right of way when they enter either a marked crosswalk or an intersection with no white lines, but if they don't allow cars enough time to stop drivers are more likely to injure them. One pedestrian complained about drivers:

They use their cars almost as weapons and get mad at me when I'm crossing with the walk signal on. I'm legally in the right, but I could be legally dead. (Older woman)

and a cab driver agrees:

Pedestrians? They take their lives in their own hands. They're crazy to walk in this city because we're out to get 'em. It's Fahrenheit 451 time around here. Yeah, cab drivers have no use for pedestrians. (Middle aged man)

Anyone who's been in a major city has experienced the aggressive attitude of many drivers toward people on foot. The driver sees someone in a crosswalk, speeds up fast and slams to a halt on the heels of the person. Sound familiar?  Pedestrians are threatened daily in cities by drivers who use aggressive tactics to force walkers to the curb:

I see them crossing on campus. Of course they cross all over the road as if it's a walkway or a mall instead of a street with cars passing through. I hate them. I disapprove of their taking the right to block me. I wish something bad would happen to them. This happens everyday, so I have experience dealing with them. They tend to poke along, so I drive up fast and as close as I can to them to make them hurry up. You should see how they scurry then. (Young woman)

This is the "me vs. them" mentality toward pedestrians. Many motorists don't mind routinely using their vehicle to intimidate defenseless people on foot. Drivers justify their road rage against pedestrians by accusing them in their minds of walking too slow, as if they didn't care that they're blocking the vehicle's progress. In short, pedestrians are just in their way:

Now I see a stop sign ahead but I'm not going to stop completely because I'm late. I'll just inch forward to make him go quicker. He could walk faster to be more considerate. (Older woman)

If we behaved this way towards people we know we would be regarded as self-centered and selfish, and many would avoid us. But in the prevailing culture of disrespect on the road, coercive driving behavior is considered normal. Drivers who are fully tolerant and respectful of pedestrians exist, not by birth or culture but as a result of training their traffic emotions.

By law, the pedestrian's safety takes precedence over the motorist's desire to get someplace. Law and logic dictate that the people on foot must receive preferential treatment even when they jaywalk. And it's not up to drivers to make pedestrians do the right thing. Nor is it up to pedestrians to make drivers behave. Yet many drivers don't hesitate to herd pedestrians, or to use their car like a cutting horse to place pedestrians where the driver wants them.

The driver's questionable reasoning is: You're invading my driving space, my domain where I'm in charge of what happens, my car is bigger than you, so I can make you behave. But this is a fantasy. Motorists aren't really in charge of the streets, and they have certain legal responsibilities toward pedestrians, to protect their safety and to give them the right of way. If you unthinkingly engage in aggressive emotions and acts against pedestrians, you're at risk of generalizing this negativity to co-workers, family members, and pets.

Changing Attitudes Toward Pedestrians

If drivers are territorial about the roads, pedestrians see things differently and they too are prone to road rage. When motorists approach a crosswalk and cross the safety line, they have intruded into pedestrian territory. Pedestrians automatically interpret this invasion of space as a deliberate challenge to their rights and safety. Pedestrians who feel threatened by drivers may have thoughts of vengeance:

I noticed the feeling of fear, either for my own safety or the safety of another pedestrian, just prior to feelings of aggression toward drivers. I feel a need to retaliate and I do it mentally by cursing drivers and wishing bad things would happen to them. I also glare at them and give them dirty looks. After an incident it takes several hours for these aggressive feelings to subside. I'm surprised by how much hate I feel for drivers who try to intimidate me when I'm an innocent and delicate pedestrian. I get momentary satisfaction by getting even, but later I feel guilty and ashamed that I'm so hostile when I believe in being peaceful. (Older man).

Even if the extremes are mostly mental and emotional, everyone is capable of venting hostility inwardly and overtly. It can be terrifying when this happens to well-meaning drivers who make unwitting mistakes:

After my doctor appointment I came slowly out of the parking garage. The drive is very steep and only flattens out on the sidewalk portion. There was another car exiting, so I had to stay on the steep part for a few seconds until he left. I thought he was leaving, so  I went up onto the sidewalk a little, but then he stopped again, so the sidewalk was only about two feet wide between our cars. It wouldn't have mattered, except for the fact that an odd looking man approached down the sidewalk and began touching the hood of my car as he walked by it. Then he turned to me and said something I couldn't hear, shaking his finger at me.

The car ahead of me left, and I waited for the weird pedestrian to pass by, but I was feeling scared that he might do something dangerous. He passed by and I began to move forward, but suddenly he came back, right into my path. I braked hard and he continued to move in front of my car with something in his hand. I knew he couldn't hear me, but I automatically said, "Be careful now." He raised his hand and threw something at me. A big green ball hit my windshield, right in my face, blocking my view for a second. I decided I had to escape, so I swerved around him and left quickly. My heart was pounding and my head throbbed. I felt lucky that he hadn't thrown a rock or tried to get into my car. It took me an hour to get over the fear, and now I'll worry about mean things happening while I'm in the car.


I thought about it later, trying to decide what I could've done to avoid that confrontation. I could've backed down the ramp to accommodate him. He might have appreciated that, been appeased. I thought of it at the time, but decided it was too much trouble, but maybe I was wrong. It's a lot more trouble to experience that confrontation and its aftermath. I could've been more helpful and considerate of the person walking. (Middle aged woman)

 It's easy to feel challenged in either the driver or the pedestrian role because the same emotions are evoked in both roles by the basic emotional intelligence issues they contain:

Drivers who examine carefully how they relate to pedestrians often discover that they hold many unfavorable attitudes. Working with many drivers has proved to us that people have the capacity to become compassionate drivers and that altruism on the road exists in many forms:

There's a pedestrian and she looks like she's a jogger, dressed like that. I better speed up faster so as not to slow her down. I wonder what my exhaust smells like to her and whether she's going to get a whiff that might choke her or make her cough. Yeah, I worry about that. How do I know how much I stink and what do I do about it? I suppose most cars don't, or do they? I'll need to check my car for that. I'll smell it when I get home. (Middle aged woman)

Practicing small kindnesses brings many benefits to you and to pedestrians.

Checklist: Your Tendency to Pressure Pedestrians

Aggressive drivers have many excuses for pressuring pedestrians. Many of the aggressive strategies we use are hidden from us until we monitor our traffic emotions. How many of these items describe you under certain conditions? 

I put pressure on pedestrians when…

1.     _____ I'm in an unpleasant mood

2.     _____ I feel sick or in pain

3.     _____ I'm in a rush

4.     _____ I'm in unfamiliar territory

5.     _____ I'm daydreaming, not being alert

6.     _____ I don't feel like making an extra effort for them

7.     _____ I goof up sometimes (like seeing them too late), but I don't feel like being nice about it after

8.     _____ It's too early in the day and I'm trying to wake up

9.     _____ It's too late in the day and I'm trying to stay awake

10. _____ I'm prejudiced against pedestrians according to age, gender, size, appearance, or ethnic background

11. _____ I think that cars should always have the right of way, for obvious reasons of weight and speed

12.      _____ I like to see them cower, as they should, given my larger size

Checklist:  Emotional Intelligence Towards Pedestrians

The items are arranged in two emotional intelligence areas:

1.  Pedestrians always have the right of way over cars.

Yes              No

2.  I'm happy to slow down for pedestrians and give them all the time they need to cross safely.

Yes              No

3.  Drivers should watch out for pedestrians no matter what.

Yes              No

4.  Drivers who have the green light at an intersection are still required to yield if a pedestrian jaywalks.

Yes              No

5.  I wait for individuals to pass before beginning a turn.

Yes              No

6.  I keep the car behind crosswalk lines.

Yes              No

7.  I slow down gradually when approaching pedestrians and drive away gradually after pedestrians pass.

Yes              No

8.  I stop a few feet away from walkers as they pass.

Yes              No

9.  I give pedestrians all the time they take to walk past the car before starting to go.

Yes              No

10.  I wear a pleasant expression when pedestrians can see it.

Yes              No

11.  If walkers wave in appreciation, I smile and wave back.

Yes              No

12.  If I make a mistake and threaten them unwittingly, I try to apologize.

Yes              No

13.  I avoid honking, yelling, and gesturing offensively near pedestrians.

Yes              No

14.  I don't retaliate if pedestrians do something rude or incorrect, or try to teach them a lesson.

Yes              No

Is it easier to answer Yes for the first 9 items and harder to say Yes to items 10-14? We know that pedestrians always have the right of way and are legally protected from drivers using the car to threaten them. But when we're sitting behind the wheel and driving under the influence of reptilian emotions, our logic wobbles and our memory clouds over.

Sample Pedestrian Self-Witnessing Report by a Student

This report has really helped me to focus on my pedestrian personality.  I just never thought about it.  I was walking around unconsciously, I guess.  Once in a while I would catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection of a window and I would be surprised.  Hey, that's me.  Do I look like this? kind of thing.  I observed myself under three conditions.  One was the hallway and staircase of the building where I take an evening class.  The second was our local shopping center.  And the third was at the beach.  I held my little cassette tape recorder in the hand and kept it under my chin.  I had draped a jacket over my arm and was holding a brown bag.  I tried to act like I was in a hurry and anxious to get somewhere.  I didn't see anybody show awareness that I was talking into the tape recorder from time to time.

Hallway and staircase:

Well, here I am again.  And here they are.  Just look at that crowd.  People everywhere.  C'mon folks, stay out of my please.  Look at those two standing at the bottom of the stairway.  C'mon you guys don't stand there.  Here I come.

 (Here I should add some explanations.  I was determined to pass through without slowing down even if I had to bump one of the guys.  I felt justified because they were doing something wrong.  They should not be blocking the way.  There was plenty room for them to step aside against the wall.  Why do they have to talk in the middle of the staircase entrance?  I felt outraged and prepared to do violence.)

OK, that was a bump.  My shoulder against his.  It felt like he gave way.  I put muscle into it.  I wanted him to feel a sharp pain for a few seconds.  I'm not going to look behind.  I'm not going to apologize.  In a way I'm glad.  I succeeded in teaching this individual a lesson without having to slow down and waste my time.  Watch out here comes some idiot person walking down the wrong side of the staircase.  I'm not gonna let him get away with it.

At this point I kept going up the staircase on the right hand side.  I squared my shoulders and looked down, waiting for the collision.  The other man tried to get down through my left side but two people were right behind me so he had to turn his shoulders vertically to squeeze through.  He could've made it if I had also turned my left shoulder slightly.  But I wouldn't.  So he bumped me, expecting me to yield under the force.  But I was ready.  I pumped my chest and shoulder muscle and held my arm tight.  The result was that he fell on top of the two guys that were right behind me.  They had to steady themselves against the handrail in order not to go tumbling all the way down.  Me I just kept going without looking back.  There was an evil little smile of satisfaction on my face. 

Shopping Mall:

(This time I was not just acting like I'm in a hurry.  I was.  I stayed too long at the coffee shop.  I could've left a few minutes earlier but I kept not leaving.  Just looking at all the people doing basically nothing.)

Damn.  Damn.  Damn.  All these people are crowding in here.  I can't understand why they have to be here at this hour.  Usually this hour there is hardly anybody.  Excuse me.  Excuse me.  I'm sorry.  Excuse me.  I can't stand it how slow they are moving.  Look at that weird looking guy.  Strange hair.  Wow, look at that chick.  I hate people who walk so slow.  I hate people who stand in the way.  Excuse me.  They act like I don't exist.  Excuse me.  Oh no, I hate tourists who walk shoulder to shoulder three at a time.  Excuse me can I go by please.  Hello, excuse me.

Look at this couple coming at me on the wrong side of the sidewalk.  Tourists.  Don't they know you're supposed to walk on the right hand side.  Why are they so stupid?  Maybe in their own country they walk on the left, but here you're supposed to walk on the right you idiots.  They should get lessons in walking when they come into the country.  I'm not going to pass them on the left.  I just can't do that.  They've got to learn that in this place we walk on the right and we don't just block a public walkway.  Damn.

 To explain what happened.  The couple just kept coming at me expecting me to pass them on my left.  There was plenty of room.  So when we came up face to face I had to stop, and they had to stop.  They both smiled and started laughing and talking in an agitated way.  Of course I didn't know what they were jabbering about.  Finally I stepped to my left and started walking again.  I felt stupid and embarrassed.  Why didn't I just go the left to begin with.  Why did I have to make a big scene with them.  Well, I wasn't happy with my pedestrian personality.)

Home>Articles on Road Rage and Aggressive Driving

See also: Pedestrian Psychology and Safety | Drivers Against Pedestrians | Pedestrian Rage | Bicycling and Motorcycling | Safe Routes Program  |