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Interview with Leon James

Suncoast News  New Port Richey, FL  Sandy Sanders   July 1999

Has aggressive driving increased nationally in the last few years, compared to say five or 10 years ago, and, if so, what do you attribute this to?

The answer is Probably Yes, but not everybody agrees. If you look at surveys that ask people, Do you think that aggressive driving is worse now?, then you get higher percentages today than 5 to 10 years ago, but we did not have this kind of survey years ago. Today, as many as 2 out of 3 drivers say Yes to that question. We think, but we have no proof, that this percentage is higher than what people would have said 10 years ago. There is evidence that road rage violence reported to police has been on the increase. But accurate figures are not available. Of course road rage is not the same as aggressive driving.

In my approach, a gradual increase in aggressive driving is predicted, because I define it as a cultural norm. Aggressive drivers are performing a CULTURE TANTRUM which they have learned in childhood from parents and TV. The occasion that drivers pick to perform their aggressive driving acts, is a social one and it is in accordance with the standard rules of territoriality and competition. Both of these attitudes are methods of operation that are applied to the driving situation. This attitude is basically hostile and anti-social. It's a kind of highway cynicism that is condoned by society.

Therefore aggressive driving is going to be on the increase. Right now we are breeding the next generation of aggressive drivers.

Is aggressive driving peculiar to one age group more than another?

According to my Internet Road Rage Survey, there is a significant age and gender effect, which means that aggressive driving varies between men and women, and between young, middle aged, and older drivers.

Here is a quote that gives general findings, from an article at this address:

Aggressive driving is made up of a syndrome of habits that stick together with plenty of individual variation.

Young drivers are more aggressive in all driving behaviors than older drivers; senior drivers are the least aggressive.

Men are more aggressive than women when they drive sports cars and light trucks (S-10, Pick-up, Ram, Ranger, F-150, Silverado, Dakota, etc.); women are more aggressive than men when they drive SUVs and luxury cars. For economy and family cars, it depends on the specific behavior.

There appear to be three psychological categories of vehicles people drive: tough driving cars (sports, light trucks, SUVs), soft driving cars (economy, family), and special driving cars (vans, luxury). Each of these psychological categories has its own aggressive driving syndrome that distinguishes it from the others.

It is evident that aggressive driving is a cultural norm that is "generationally" transmitted as a habit imbibed in childhood when riding with parents and reinforced by repeated media portrayals of drivers behaving badly. To get us out of this, I propose a program of Lifelong Driver Education.

Now for the details, look below. It takes me many hours to tabulate, analyze, present, and write up the survey results--but it is a labor of love. As DrDriving, I feel it my duty to help the public gain understanding of the aggressive driving problem. Enjoy! And I'd be delighted to read your comments! E-mail DrDriving.

The sample was made up of 1095 people who clicked on the link that announces DrDriving's Road Rage Survey on my site, and decided to fill it out. The answers were entirely anonymous, as the form did not collect name information. No other information such as cookies was obtained. The time period was between September 23, 1998 and January 16, 1999. The mean age was 28 with an overall range of 14 to 94 years old. However, the distribution for years of experience for this sample of 1095 is highly skewed, with the majority of the sample having less than 10 years experience.

Now here are some more specific results:


The basic cultural facts about speeding are clear when you look at age differences, gender differences, and across various states, according to the drivers' own admissions. We start out speeding as young drivers (52% own up to it), then more and more of us reduce that behavior: modestly at first (41% for drivers aged 25 to 54), then quite substantially: 19% for the senior group (55+). Note that even at the senior driver level, 1 in 5 still wants to break the speed limit up to 25 mph above the legal level! This is going to be a very difficult problem to solve in our highway society. Women drivers overall speed less than men overall (41% to 46%). While this is statistically significant the rates are clearly high for both. Differences across selected States vary tremendously. The leading States in serious speeding are Colorado (66% or two out every three drivers there), Georgia (54% or one in two admit to regular speeding), Pennsylvania (51%) and Texas (47%). States with the least self-reported speeding are California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Ohio--all with self-reported speeding ranging from 30% to 40%.


Gender differences in lane hopping without signaling are non-existent apparently, both reporting themselves at the rate of 28%, or about one in four drivers--who admit doing it regularly. Age differences are much more dramatic with significant substantial differences: the young drivers 15 to 24 report themselves at 36% or one in three; the middle age group (25 to 54) report themselves as 23% or one in four; and the senior group (55-94) considerably lower at 13%. As you can see from the results of this sample in relation to all the items, the senior drivers consistently come out as least aggressive and committing the least amount of driving infractions. Thus, age makes us wise!!


More insight can be gained if we inspect the results to see how the three age groups are responding. What do you see, surprise of surprises? For Young, Middle, and Senior groups the percentages are 16%, 6%, and 2% respectively. By now this is a familiar pattern if you have read what precedes. Now a crucial question: What about the genders? The answer is as unexpected: the women do more red light running than the men: 12% to 9%. One might say that a 3% difference, even if reliable statistically, may not amount to very much. Well, let's see. A 3% national reduction in crash fatalities over the life career of one generation of drivers, or about 60 years, would mean saving 72,000 lives!! (I used this formula: 40,000 deaths per yearX60yearsX.03=72,000)


The pattern of results revealed in this Table point to the cultural influences related to car society--parental influence and marketing symbolism. Young drivers of family cars tailgate less than their parental group who drive the same cars (9% vs. 13%). But young drivers of sports cars tailgate more than their parental group (28% vs. 13%). Young drivers of SUVs tailgate equally with their parental group (21% vs. 23%--not enough to be significantly different or reliable). As you can see for yourself from the Graphs and Tables, the results for economy cars are comparable to the results with family cars, while the results with light trucks (S-10, Pick-up, Ram, Ranger, F-150, Silverado, Dakota, etc.) are comparable to the results with sports cars.

My interpretation of these patterns is that parents of SUVs transmit their dangerous tailgating practices to their children, while parents of sports cars do not. Parents of family cars have a positive influence on their children so that the children tailgate less than the parents. Note however, that other interpretations of these results are possible. The pusize="3le will be clearer when I get to the analysis of the survey dealing with remembered parental behavior behind the wheel. One aspect of aggressive driving is becoming more and more clear from these results: type of car is a major influence on how aggressive the driver gets. If you look at the graphs and tables for Type of Car and Tailgating, you see the familiar pattern: tough driving cars like sports, light trucks, and SUVs elicit dangerous and aggressive tailgating to the tune of one in five drivers (20% and more); soft driving cars like economy and family cars elicit significantly less dangerous tailgating (11% and 16%); special driving cars tend to have their own peculiar pattern with vans always low on aggressiveness (6% for tailgating) and luxury cars in between tough and soft (13%). These patterns recur with many aggressive driving items, thus pointing to a cultural syndrome, norm, or habit.


Let's explore this sensitive and personal aspect of aggressive driving. If you look at the graphs and tables for age differences, you find a significant difference between the three groups: Young (3.1), Middle aged (2.7), and Senior (2.5). As drivers get older, they reduce this trait more and more. The big drop occurs as we move out of the teenage and young adult stage and settle into middle age. Then another drop in age brings us further wisdom as seniors. Nevertheless, even in this calmer stage of individual development, our senior years as drivers still involve this mental pathology--the enjoyment of disfiguring or mutilating or physically torturing other drivers. I was one of the first traffic psychologists to detect this phenomenon and bring it to the attention of the public--see my 1987 article on violence and mental health.


Now let's see how age and gender figure into the picture. Who is feeling the compassion--the young or the old? The women or the men? If you click on the tables and graphs I provide, you can see that the women feel compassion more than the men, and that the older drivers feel more compassion than the young. But there is a complicating factor that is quite revealing when you compare the men and women in the three age groups. The young women drivers are only slightly less compassionate than the older women drivers (5.1 vs. 5.5), while the young men drivers are quite a bit less compassionate than either the women of their age or the men who are older (4.3 for yon men drivers; 5.0 for middle aged men, and 5.6 for senior men). Note that as drivers get older, the men catch up to the women in feeling compassion more regularly: for the young drivers, the difference is large (4.3 for men vs. 5.1 for women); for middle aged drivers, the difference between the genders gets smaller (5.0 for the men vs. 5.5 for the women); as they enter the senior category, men are equally compassionate to women (5.6 vs. 5.5 or the same within error). The error rate for this 10-point scale of regularity is about .3 of a scale unit (see the column marked "St. Err." in the tables I provide).

What type of things trigger aggressive driving?

The top complaints by drivers are:

1) Tailgating

2) Cutting off or cutting in too soon

3) Not signaling lane changes or turns

4) Running red lights

5) Hogging or driving slow in the passing lane

6) Making an obscene gesture

The list below shows some frequent answers given by drivers when asked to give their view about why drivers are aggressive:

**A decline of morality, religion, and societal standards in general. Also, there are more cars on the road. Finally, people are more pressed for time in the 90s than ever before

**Accepted portrayal of poor drivers on TV, in movies, etc. Acceptance of personal poor driving habits. Lifestyles prone to always busy, busy, busy. Lack of enforcement by law enforcement and courts.

**There are more and more drivers on the road. I also think that peoples attitudes have become more aggressive than in days gone by.

**Aggression is part of their lives. A constant feeling of rush, even without good reason. Frustration with the lack of law enforcement

**Anger toward the world. Maybe problems at home and work and having no way to vent.

**Angry/upset within ourselves and our own lives prior to getting into a


**Area in which I live. There is so much traffic that everyone is trying to get to their destination and not allotting enough time to get there. Making their problem everyone else's. That or the fact that they have these really cool cars (or so they think) or just think that their S**T don't stink.

What can motorists do to keep from becoming a victim or party to aggressive driving?


Principle 1: If your first reaction is negative, follow it up with a positive. Example:

Here are some common hostile reactions that drivers have. The negative or anti-social reactions are called "reptilian driving" because the emotions are doing the driving: These should be followed by the corresponding positive or pro-social reactions called "cortical driving" because the rational mind is then doing the driving:

1) They're jerks! VERSUS I'm feeling very impatient today!

2) How can they do this to me! VERSUS I'm scared and angry!

3) They make me so mad when they do this! VERSUS I make myself so mad when they do this.

4) I just want him to know how I feel! VERSUS It's not worth it.

5) They better stay out of my way! VERSUS I need to recognize that everybody has to get to their destination.

6) How can they be so stupid talking on the phone while driving! VERSUS I need to be extra careful around these drivers.

The positive follow up is emotionally more intelligent and satisfying. It is also smarter because of the second principle:

Principle 2: Do that which allows you to retain maximum control over the situation.

Because driving is such a potentially dangerous activity, the prime imperative of the driver is to retain control over the situation. Let say the behavior of another driver scares you or upsets you. Your first reaction is negative. Now if you don't follow up your negative with a positive, you're putting yourself at risk of losing control over the situation. The normal tendency is to vent your anger against the offending driver. If you vent your anger, you increase it. If you increase it, you have difficulty keeping yourself from expressing it. And if you express your anger visibly, you've lost control over the situation because you can't predict or control how the other person will react to your hostility.

Principle 3: Practice the Castanza Technique for maximum safety.

George Castanza in one of the Seinfeld episodes, decided one day to act the opposite of what he felt like, and everybody suddenly started being nice to him, and he loved it. When your first reaction to an incident is negative\ and hostile, show the opposite of what you feel. For instance, if you swear and feel like giving the other driver a piece of your mind, pretend you're happy with that driver: put on a happy face, yield, make room, try to be helpful and polite. Then watch the highway smile with you! The way you drive is contagious! If you drive in a hostile manner, you invite aggressiveness in return. If you maintain civility and helpfulness, you invite such behavior from others.

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