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Dr. Leon James, Professor of Psychology
Dr. Diane Nahl, Professor of Library and Information Science
University of Hawaii

Email: DrDriving@DrDriving.org

Why Driving is Stressful


Driving in traffic routinely involves events and incidents. Events are normal sequential maneuvers such as stopping for the light, changing lanes, or braking. Incidents are frequent but unpredictable events. Some of these are dangerous and frightening, like near-misses, while others are merely annoying or depressing, like missing one's turn or being insulted by a motorist. Driving events and incidents are sources of psychological forces capable of producing powerful feelings and irrational thought sequences. Driving is a highly dramatic activity that millions of people perform on a routine daily basis. The drama stems from high risk and unpredictability. Driving has two conflicting structural components--predictability and unpredictability. Both are present all of the time. Predictability, like maintaining steady speed in one's lane, creates safety, security, and usually escape from disaster. Unpredictability, like impulsive lane changes without signaling, creates danger, stress, and often crashes. For many people driving is linked to the value of freedom of locomotion. On the one hand they get into cars and drive off where they please, the very symbol of freedom and independence. But on the other hand, as they are ready to leave, they encounter restrictions and constrictions that prevent them from driving as they wish.

The following list identifies 15 widely known conflicting aspects of driving that act as stressors. They are emotional challenges that are common occasions for expressing hostility and aggressiveness on roadways.

  1. Immobility
    Most of the body during driving remains still and passive, not like walking where the entire body exerts effort and remains continuously active. Tension tends to build up when the body is physically restricted and constricted
  2. Constriction
    Motor vehicles are restricted to narrow bands of highway and street lanes. In congested traffic, one's progress is inevitably going to be continuously blocked by numerous other cars. Being thwarted from going forward when you expect to, arouses the emotion of restriction and constriction, and along with it, anxiety and the desire to escape from the constriction. This anxiety and avoidance prompts drivers to perform risky or aggressive maneuvers that may result in mishaps.
  3. Regulation
    Driving is a regulated activity, which means that government agencies and law enforcement officers get to tell drivers how fast to drive where, and how. Cars and trucks have powerful engines capable of going faster than what is allowed--ever. Drivers are punished for violating these regulations which they are responsible for knowing and obeying. This imposition, though lawful and necessary, arouses a rebellious streak in many people, which then allows them to regularly disregard whatever regulations seem wrong to them at the time or in the mood they are in.
  4. Lack of control
    Traffic follows the laws that govern flow patterns like rivers, pipes, blood vessels, or streaming molecules. In congested traffic, the flow depends on the available spaces around the cars, as can be ascertained from the view of a traffic helicopter, or from a bridge above the highway. When one car slows down, hundreds of other cars behind run out of space and must tap their brakes to slow down or stop altogether, as in gridlock. No matter how one drives, it's not possible to beat the traffic waves, whose cause or origin starts miles from where we are. This lack of control over what happens is frustrating, stress producing, and tends to lead to venting one's anger on whoever is around--another driver, a passenger, pedestrian, construction worker, government officials.
  5. Being put in danger
    Cars are loved by their owners and they are expensive to fix. Even a scratch is stress producing because it reduces the car's value and is expensive to repair. Congested traffic filled with impatient and aggressive drivers creates many hair-raising close calls and hostile incidents within a few minutes of each other. Physiological stress is thus produced, along with many negative emotions--fear, resentment, rage, helplessness, bad mood, and depression.
  6. Territoriality
    The symbolic portrayal of the car has tied it to individual freedom and self-esteem, promoting a mental attitude of defensiveness and territoriality. Motorists consider the space inside the car as their castle and the space around the car as their territory. The result is that they repeatedly feel insulted or invaded while they drive, lulling them into a hostile mental state, even to warlike postures and aggressive reactions to routine incidents that are suddenly perceived as skirmishes, battles, or duels between drivers. For many motorists, driving has become a dreaded daily drudge, an emotional roller coaster difficult to contain and a source of danger and stress.
  7. Diversity
    There are about 200 million licensed drivers in North America today, and they represent a diversity of drivers who vary in experience, knowledge, ability, style, and purpose for being on the road. These social differences reduce our sense of predictability because drivers with different ability and purpose don't behave according to the expected norms. The peace and confidence of motorists is shaken by events that are unexpected, and driving becomes more complex, more emotionally challenging. Diversity or plurality increases stress because it creates more unpredictability.
  8. Multi-tasking
    The increase in dashboard complexity and in-car activities like eating, talking on the phone, checking voice e-mail, challenge people's ability to remain alert and focused behind the wheel. Drivers become more irritated at each other when their attention or alertness seems to be lacking due to multi-tasking behind the wheel. Multi-tasking without adequate training increases stress by dividing attention and reducing alertness.
  9. Denying our mistakes
    Driving is typically done by automatic habits compiled over years, and this means that much of it is outside people's conscious awareness. Typically drivers tend to exaggerate their own "excellence," overlooking their many mistakes. When passengers complain or, when other drivers are endangered by these mistakes, there is a strong tendency to deny the mistakes and to see complaints as unwarranted. This denial allows drivers to feel self-righteous and indignant at others, enough to want to punish and retaliate, adding to the general hostility and stress level on highways.
  10. Cynicism
    Many people have learned to drive under the supervision of parents and teachers who are critical and judgmental. We don’t just learn to manipulate the vehicle; we also acquire an over-critical mental attitude towards it. As children we're exposed to this constant judgmental behavior of our parents who drive us around. It's also reinforced in movies portraying drivers behaving badly. This culture of mutual cynicism among motorists promotes an active and negative emotional life behind the wheel. Negative emotions are stress producing.
  11. Loss of objectivity
    Driving incidents are not neutral: there is always someone who is considered to be at fault. There is a natural tendency to want to attribute fault to others rather than to self. This self-serving bias even influences the memory of what happened, slanting the guilt away from self and laying it on others. Drivers lose objectivity and right judgment when a dispute comes up. Subjectivity increases stress by strengthening the feeling that one has been wronged.
  12. Venting
    Part of our cultural heritage is the ability to vent anger by reciting all the details of another individual's objectionable behavior. The nature of venting is such that it increases by its own logic until it breaks out into overt hostility and even physical violence. It requires motivation and self-training to bring venting under control before it explodes into the open. Until it's brought under conscious control, venting is felt as an energizing "rush" and promotes aggressiveness and violence. Nevertheless, this seductive feeling is short-lived and is accompanied by a stream of anger-producing thoughts that impair our judgment and tempt us into rash and dangerous actions. Repeated venting takes its toll on the immune system and acts as physiological stress with injurious effects on the cardio-vascular system (Williams and Williams, 1993).
  13. Unpredictability
    The street and highway create an environment of drama, danger, and uncertainty. In addition heat, noise and smells act as physiological stress and aggravate feelings of frustration and resentment. Competition, hostility, and rushing further intensify the negative emotions. The driving environment has become tedious, brutish, and dangerous, difficult to adjust to on the emotional plane.
  14. Ambiguity
    Motorists don't have an accepted or official gestural communication language. There is no easy way of saying "Oops, I'm sorry!" as we do in a bank line. This allows for ambiguity to arise: "Did he just flip me off or was that an apology?" It would no doubt help if vehicles were equipped with an electronic display allowing drivers to flash pre-recorded messages. Lack of clear communication between motorists creates ambiguity, which contributes to stress.
  15. Under-trained in emotional intelligence
    Traditionally, driver education was conceived as acquainting students with some general principles of safety, followed by a few hours of supervised hands-on experience behind the wheel, or on a driving simulator. Developing sound judgment and emotional self-control were not part of the training, even though these goals were mentioned as essential. Most drivers today are untrained or under-trained, in cognitive and affective skills. Cognitive skills are good habits of thinking and judgment. Affective skills are good habits of attitude and motivation. Drivers thus lack the necessary coping abilities such as how to cool off when angered or frustrated, or how to cooperate with the traffic flow and not hinder it. This lack of training in emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995) creates high stress conditions for most drivers.

It is common to relate aggressiveness to social and environmental factors, in addition to individual personality factors. For instance, congestion on highways and anonymity in cars interact with faulty attitudes and inadequate coping skills to produce aggressive traffic behavior under certain identifiable critical conditions. These apparent triggering conditions are unpredictable, and involve symbolic meaning for the dignity or self-worth of the interactants who may later report having felt insulted or threatened. It is part of popular psychology to call these provocative and dramatic conditions "triggers" as in, "It's not my fault. He provoked me. It's his fault. He made me do it." The trigger theory of anger serves to absolve the perpetrator from some or all of the responsibility for the aggression or violence. The attackers see themselves as the victims through self-serving speech acts by which they escape culpability and opprobrium (Searle, 1969). It is common for road ragers to show no remorse for their assault and battery, judging what they did as justified and deserved.

Why do we define driving while distracted as a form of aggressive driving?

There is a tendency to think that multi-tasking while driving is the cause of driver inattention or distraction. This belief leads to demands for new laws that restrict or ban the use of in-car communication devices such as phones and computers. But the correct argument is that multi-tasking can lead to driver distraction when drivers haven't properly trained themselves to use the new car gadgets. This is true for older devices like the familiar radio and CD as well as the new, like GPS, phones, and e-mail. So it's true that multi-tasking becomes the occasion for drivers to make more mistakes, when they fail to train themselves properly. This increased training is a joint responsibility of the individual driver and the government.

Multi-tasking behind the wheel is a matter of degree and all drivers are responsible for determining when they need additional self-training activities. When drivers overstep this line, they become socially and legally responsible. Drivers who allow themselves to be distracted by their multi-tasking activities are increasing the risk factor for themselves and imposing that dangerous limit on others--passengers, other drivers, pedestrians. This increased risk to which others are subjected is thus similar to other driver behavior that are considered aggressive and illegal: going through red lights, failing to yield, exceeding safe speed limits, reckless weaving, drinking and driving, driving sleepy or drowsy, road rage, etc.

Driving with Emotional Fitness

The following chart helps to track your growth in emotional fitness as you try to diagnose the various elements of your driving style and philosophy. For a complete picture, keep track of three aspects of yourself as driver: feelings, thoughts, and actions. Driving more intelligently is the result of positive feelings and right thoughts coming together in effective actions.


Emotional Intelligence


State of


Sequence of


Type of





selfish, reckless, impulsive and hostile; constantly expresses criticisms; feels insulted and insecure




Suspicious, wary and competitive but prudent and restrained; expresses worries and complaints




helpful and friendly; gives others the benefit of the doubt; expresses enjoyment and optimism


Level 1--Oppositional Driving

At level 1 we're unfit to handle road exchanges because our feelings are oppositional and negative, made worse by irrational thought patterns. The result of this deadly combination is an impulsive, reckless, and hostile driving style. Most drivers operate their vehicles at this lowest level of emotional intelligence some of the time, and many drivers are in it most of the time. In this precarious mental state, it's easy to interpret a traffic incident as a personal insult that encourages a bad mood and produces other negative consequences. Being intolerant goes along with thinking irrationally about other drivers because in any incident, they are always at fault while we excuse our own mistakes. A self-serving bias interferes with the ability to be objective and logical. Our surveys show that one in three motorists are oppositional drivers on a regular daily basis. Two-thirds are oppositional to a lesser degree, and rare is the driver who claims to be peaceful, tolerant, rational, and law abiding all the time, or even most of the time.3 It's very useful to discover the elements of one's oppositional thinking.

Level 2--Defensive Driving

Defensive driving teaches motorists to concentrate on the safety of the vehicle, driver and passengers. This preparedness philosophy helps reduce irrational decisions and encourages more logical thought patterns, such as, "What would happen if..." and "If I do that they'll respond with that..." As a result, actions are more prudent than in level-1. However, a level-2 orientation has disadvantages because it encourages a competitive environment on the road. As defensive drivers we can still measure success competitively in terms of how fast we get there, how many cars we leave behind, or how long we can coast without having to touch the brakes. Driving defensively does not provide immunity to negative thoughts, to impatience and intolerance of the faults of other drivers. While defensive driving is more mindful than oppositional driving, it leaves us in a state of competition or suspicion.

Level 3--Supportive Driving

Level-3 driving overcomes the disadvantages inherent in oppositional and defensive driving orientations. Supportive driving is a mental orientation that enables drivers to manage other motorists and the traffic using a positive approach that avoids the built-in negativity of oppositional and defensive driving styles. The key to acquiring a supportive driving mentality is to practice prosocial thought patterns that promote helpful actions and a benign demeanor. Supportive driving styles encourage us to be prudent and safe as well as tolerant and friendly by focusing on the enjoyment of driving while remaining unfazed by its hassles. Oppositional driving incorporates antisocial thought patterns, while defensive driving incorporates negativity as a normal part of driving. Supportive driving is a mental orientation that emphasizes the positive bias, opposite to the automotive vigilante mentality. Instead of finding fault with the other driver, find an excuse (e.g., "Look at that air head forgetting his blinkers on. Oh, I take it back. Maybe he's really preoccupied, or confused. We all make mistakes, including me. Etc."). The key in maintaining a supportive driving orientation is witnessing your antisocial statements and immediately neutralizing them with prosocial statements. Do this consistently and you become a supportive driver.

Review the contrasts between anti-social and prosocial driver orientations in the Chart below, and explain the difference in each example. Show how they differ in terms of the focus. For example, consider the first example: "They're bone heads!" is a negative orientation, vs. "I'm feeling very impatient today!" is a positive orientation because it accurately focuses on me and my feeling impatient today. The negative focus is antisocial because it always wants to blame, punish, and retaliate. The positive focus is prosocial because it is rational and objective and stays away from aggressing against another. Try come up with an explanation for each of the other items: Why one is subjective, false, and injurious while the other is objective, true, and peaceful?





Focus on blaming others and retaliating

Focus on self and how to cope

"They're bone heads!" "I'm feeling very impatient today!"
"How can they do this to me!" "I'm scared and angry!"
"They make me so mad when they do this!" "I make myself so mad when they do this."
"I just want him to know how I feel!" "It's not worth it."
"They better stay out of my way!" "I need to recognize that everybody has to get to their destination."
"How can they be so stupid talking on the phone while driving!" "I need to be extra careful around these drivers."

The transformation from negative and aggressive driving to positive and supportive driving is illustrated by the driver competence skills in the chart below. The oppositional driving mode is a negative mental quagmire while the positive driving mode is emotionally intelligent because motorists exert rational self-control. The actual words in these examples may not fit your own style of thinking-to-yourself, but try to figure out what each example stands for, and think of the words you would use in that frame of mind.

Defining Aggressive Driving


Transforming Negative to Positive



leads to


leads to

*feeling insulted and insulting others
*feeling competitive
*practicing selfism
*acting with a defensive mentality
*expressing pessimism
*showing intolerance or being over-critical
*denigrating others
*involved in put-down symbolism (or deprecating others)
*feeling ignored
*being contentious
*viewing traffic as individual competition
*holding on to a sense of entitlement (or "I have the right to do what I want")
*thrill-seeking or looking for excitement
*insisting on driving at your level of control
*me first mentality
*individual focus vs. focus on group
*hating diversity
*self-serving bias
*acting with civility
*being optimistic
*being tolerant
*showing obedience to legitimate authority
*viewing traffic as teamwork
*being conscientious
*accommodating to diversity
*being attentive
*feeling supportive
*acting cooperatively
*acting predictably
*being facilitative (or the "Be my guest" attitude)
*practicing  lifelong driving self-improvement activities (QDCs)


leads to


leads to

*being vindictive or cruel to others
*demeaning others
*being over-sensitive to provocation
*being prone to territorial fights or turf wars
*acting with ritual opposition
*following the law of the jungle
*feeling wronged
*feeling thwarted
*feeling being taken advantage of
*acting with habitual hostility
*maintaining an adversarial attitude
*being cynical (or expecting the worst of others)
*dehumanizing others
*prone to vehemence (or insistence)
*self-righteous criticizing (or indignation)
*accepting aggressiveness
*being coercive or wanting to enforce domination
*showing mutual disrespect
*approving of retaliation
*continues in a chain of errors while feeling pushed by the other
*approving of mental violence (or " just thinking about it")
*approving of vengeance
*insisting on punishing or retaliating
*practicing road vigilantism
* maintaining a status-seeking mentality
*suffering an erosion of inhibitions to violence
*giving in to social pressure to take excessive risks (party atmosphere in car)
*exercising freedom of choice
*showing mutual respect
*acting with compassion
*making emotionally intelligent choices
*exercising self-restraint and self-control
*being able to turn down a challenge
*backs out of errors
*willing to forgive and forget
*refusing to demean others
*ignoring provocations
*recognizing that roads are for a wide  diversity of people
*preferring a friendly atmosphere
*considerate of the legitimate rights of others
*disapproves of retaliation or vengeance
*rejects aggressiveness
*retains control of self and situation

leads to


leads to

*uncaring and willing to hurt others
*feeling alone and disconnected
*feeling alienated
*acting delusional or from fantasy
*acting on a lust for control
*acting recklessly with disregard for all others
*feeling depressed and worthless
*feeling violent or enraged and seeking an excuse to express it
*violentization through choice
*feeling depersonalized
*attached to reciprocal response leading to a chain of escalation
*general acceptance of violent behavior as normal
*excited by violent behavior
*failure oriented and acting self-destructively
*knee jerk desperateness
*refusing to back down no matter what
*feeling unable to stop
*reacting out of proportion to a provocation
*being socially responsible
*feeling connected in traffic (belonging)
*viewing traffic as teamwork
*acting from conscience
*choosing transformation to denial
*acting with integrity
*acting with dependability
*feeling interdependent
*success oriented and acting with prudence
*taking driving seriously
*willing to go through a driving personality makeover
*practicing lifelong self-improvement activities (QDCs)
*striving to be a better driver and person
*willing to come out swinging positive


Drivers who do not consider these behaviors to be aggressive:


Making obscene gestures


Passing on the shoulder


Failing to yield to merging traffic


Pulling into a parking space
and making others wait for you


Flashing high beams at other drivers


Waiting until the last minute to merge
(not waiting in line)


Speeding up to a yellow light


Changing lanes without signaling


Blocking the left (passing) lane


Honking the horn


Going at least 10 mph over speed limit


Driving too slow
(at least 10 mph below speed limit)




Using Behavioral Language for Aggressive Driving Laws

More States are passing Aggressive Driving legislation. Some of the language used to define the offense calls for subjective assessment by the officer of the intent of the driver and the style of the driving. This kind of language is rated vague because it allows errors of judgment due to field situations and the officer's attitudes. Other language is strictly objective calling for visually observing the occurrence of some behavior and the number of times it occurs. This kind of language is rated specific because it is not influenced by the officer's attitudes and depends only on honesty and professional accuracy. A review of the aggressive driving bills makes it evident that a mixture of vague and specific language is used by most states. Here is a representative sample. Legislators and law enforcement officials can use this Table to avoid using vague language in their future bills or to amend existing ones.


State Laws

vague=calls for officer's subjective judgment
specific=objectively observable or measurable


Washington committing any two or more acts of aggressive driving within five consecutive miles specific
Washington failing to obey traffic control devices specific
Washington passing improperly vague
Washington stopping on the roadway specific
Virginia operating a vehicle in a threatening or intimidating manner with the intent to cause others to lose control or be forced off the highway vague
Virginia operating a vehicle with a reckless disregard for the rights of others or in a manner that endangers any property or person vague
Virginia driving too fast for conditions vague
New York operating a vehicle in such a manner as to place another in reasonable fear of physical injury or death vague
New York driving with intent to harass, annoy or alarm another person in a manner contrary to law vague
New York changing lanes or speed in a manner that serves no legitimate purpose and creates a substantial risk of injury or death to another vague
New York intentionally causing a collision vague
Nebraska driving in a threatening or intimidating manner

following too closely

Nebraska honking the horn repeatedly specific
Nebraska pointing a firearm or weapon while driving specific
Maryland drives a motor vehicle in a deliberately discourteous, intolerant, and impatient manner that evidences a pattern of dangerous conduct contributing to the likelihood of a collision or necessitating evasive action by another driver of a motor vehicle to avoid a collision vague
Maryland is convicted of four or more violations occurring at the same time or three violations with one of the offenses being exceeding the speed limit by at least 30 mph. specific
Illinois creates the offense of road rage for any person who intentionally drives a vehicle, with malice, in such a manner as to endanger the safety or property of another vague
Illinois when the violation results in great bodily harm or disfigurement to another and is a class 4 felony specific
Illinois operates a vehicle carelessly or heedlessly in disregard for the rights of others, in a manner that endangers or is likely to endanger any property or person, or committing three or more traffic offenses vague
Hawaii operating a vehicle in a contentious or antagonistic manner that endangers the safety of another or of property vague
Hawaii operating a vehicle while either the driver or a passenger is brandishing a firearm, or any object similar in appearance, in such a manner as to reasonably induce fear in the mind of another specific
Hawaii operates a vehicle with a willful and wanton disregard for the life, limb or property of another vague
Connecticut driving in a manner that evidences a pattern of dangerous conduct contributing to the likelihood of a collision or necessitating evasive action by another operator of a motor vehicle to avoid a collision. vague
Connecticut driving recklessly vague
Connecticut failing to stop when directed by a police officer specific
Arizona Drivers could be charged with aggressive driving if they are cited for a combination of any three of the following charges:
  • using excessive speed
  • driving recklessly
  • changing lanes erratically
  • being an immediate hazard to another person or vehicle.
Arizona Drivers could be charged with aggressive driving if they are cited for a combination of any three of the following charges:
  • committing two or more listed offenses that include failing to obey a traffic control device
  • passing on the right or on the shoulder
  • tailgating or following too closely
  • failing to signal lane changes or to change lane properly
  • failing to yield the right-of-way
  • running a red light or stop sign
  • driving over the "gore" area entering or exiting a highway
  • passing a vehicle on the right by traveling off the pavement
New Jersey

An aggressive driver is anyone who operates a motor vehicle in an offensive, hostile or belligerent manner, thereby creating an unsafe environment for the remainder of the motoring public.

New Jersey The aggressive driver is identified through the following violations of   traffic regulations:
  • Speeding (breaking the speed limit)
  • Following Too Close (less than safe distance)
  • Driving While Intoxicated
  • Disregard Of Traffic Signs and Signals
  • Driving While Suspended
New Jersey The aggressive driver is identified through the following violations of   traffic regulations:
  • Unsafe Lane Change
  • Reckless, Careless or Inattentive Driving
  • Improper Passing