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Interview with Leon James

Garzia Magazine, Italian Edition Deborah Ameri  July 11, 2007

1) Could you define what traffic or driving psychology is?

Driving Psychology is the phrase I coined 25 years ago to focus attention on the need for research and application to driving problems in our society. My research focused on the thoughts and feelings of the person who is behind the wheel of an automobile in traffic. I discovered that drivers are generally very critical of one another. Drivers have a tendency to take on a new personality in traffic. They are very competitive and interfere with each other so that traffic is slower than it has to be.

2) Did you spot any differences regarding driving psychology between women and men? Which ones?

Women drivers behave like women and men drivers behave like men. I once got a Dear DrDriving letter from a woman who admitted that she at times flips other drivers off with an insulting gesture -- but she keeps her hand below the window level so it can't be seen. Men tend to express their anger more overtly. In the United States most of the 1200 annual cases of road rage assault between drivers takes place between men drivers.

Men tend to drive more miles than women, which means they are under stress for longer periods than women. But on the other hand, women often make frequent stops on daily errands for children and family, having to negotiate tight and competitive parking situations, and these events also cause much stress.

3) Can the way we drive reveal something of us? Could you give me some examples? (talking, listening to the music, driving with one hand, being stressed, being afraid, get lost all the time, get mad at others drivers, going fast, going slow, etc...)

In our book Road Rage and Aggressive Driving, written with my wife Dr. Diane Nahl, we discuss various types of driving personalities. For example The Vigilante Drivers who feel they must punish drivers who make bad mistakes that endanger the public. Others drivers take on the role of Aggressive Competitor (desperately wants to get ahead of everyone) or Left Lane Bandit (blocks the passing lane, refusing to move to the right). I myself have been a Rushing Maniac for many years driving like I'm always in a hurry and feeling a sense of panic when the road ahead of me isn't clear.

There is often no relationship between our driver personality in traffic and our personality with neighbors or coworkers. But this split personality can be reconciled. I call it a driving personality makeover. The first step is to acknowledge that you don't like your regular driving personality in traffic. This is not easy to do because most drivers think they are almost perfect.

4) Is it true that cars are like a home, an extension of ourselves?

I use the phrase emotional territoriality to  refer to this feeling and outlook. Car owners buy vehicles that will make them look good and feel good. Both money and self-confidence are invested in a car. If you touch my car, you touch me -- watch it! Drivers tend to reserve a physical space around their car as their own. If you drive or park too close to my car, you are a danger to me -- watch it!

Another aspect of this emotional territoriality is the idea that the driver is the "ship's captain" and has the authority on how to handle the vehicle. I confess in the Preface to our Road Rage Book that my personal interest in driving psychology began when my wife told me one day that her 90-year old Grandmother doesn't think I am a good driver. She believed that a good driver would adjust his driving style to take his passengers into account. At the time I did not appreciate this philosophy of driving which granted passengers human rights to feel protected instead of exposed by the way the driver was handling the vehicle. But later my wife and I drew up a Partnership Driving Contract which gives her the right as a passenger to tell the driver what makes her feel uncomfortable without retaliating and punishing her. The contract is in our book and is also available on our Web site at:

5) What can driving represent for people? Escape? Responsibility? Just duty? etc...

For Americans driving represents freedom, and so to love cars is patriotic in the United States. But since most people hate traffic there is a love-hate relationship going on. Just watch car commercials and you'll see how they appeal to independence, confidence, speed, superiority, as well as safety.

6) Why some people are very aggressive while driving? (more women or men?)

Most drivers report that they feel angry emotions while driving. Driving is the most dangerous thing most people do on a daily basis. Many drivers see their aggressive driving as assertive driving. The whole philosophy of driving is competitive. If you are not competitive you're probably a wimp whom others feel free to take advantage of. Drivers are prisoners of this competitive philosophy. They need to liberate themselves by rationally understanding that driving is teamwork and requires cooperation and coordination.

7) How do men generally perceive women who drive? And vice versa?

Society fosters gender stereotypes in many areas, including driving. There is a practice of ridiculing women drivers as unable to be skilled drivers. Yet statistics show that women are safer drivers than men. Many men abuse women who are their passengers like girlfriends or sisters and mothers. They try to scare them and they take risks. This is a violation of passengers' rights.

8) In Italy we say: "woman who drives is a danger". Is that true?

This is a societal practice that men enjoy, but not women because it degrades them. Women are better at finding their destination in an unfamiliar place. Men are inhibited from asking for directions and blunder into mistakes. Women are more objective and task oriented when driving. Men are distracted with emotional territoriality and defensive thinking that sees an insult where there is none.

9) Is it possible to classify different types of drivers? if yes which ones?

Many different schemes have been used to classify drivers into types, but none of them work very well. The fact is that driving is a cultural activity in which we are involved since infancy when we get driven around by parents and adults. We pick up their habits of handling the car and their verbal road rage -- swearing or criticizing behind the wheel. When we start driving we automatically fall back into the pattern of aggressiveness that we imbibed as children. We also watch thousands of TV programs and commercials that depict drivers behaving badly.

10) Can you tell me what is about the most recent of your research?

I'm involved in creating an inventory of feelings, thoughts, and actions of drivers behind the wheel. One technique is to have drivers in traffic think aloud and tape record their stream of thinking and feeling. Then I try to classify the data in relation to psychology in order to discover how we think and why we feel in certain ways. Finally, I try to apply this to driver self-improvement activities so that people can improve their driving philosophy from aggressive and competitive to supportive and cooperative. This inventory is also useful to make up exercises and activities that drivers can do in a lifelong program of self-improvement.

See also this article by Dr. Leon James presenting statistics for men and women.
See also student reports on gender differences in driving

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