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Interview with Leon James

Super Driver Audio Magazine Darcy Young June 1997

Super Driver:
Dr. Driving, lately we hear a lot about people attacking other people on the road, What's going on out there?

There are several factors acting together: more congestion, more stress in people's lives, chronic rushing, more disrespect. Put these together, and you get an emotionally explosive mixture. The more drivers there are for the same amount of road space, the more often you have to adjust your behavior to others: slowing down, changing lanes, waiting, yielding, and so on. Any one of these exchanges can go wrong. So the more driver exchanges there are, the more potential there is for emotions to flare up. This is one reason why aggressive driving has become more of a problem than before. It was there before, but it didn't show because there were fewer opportunities.

But increased congestion by itself, may cause more stress, but it doesn't necessarily cause more aggression. However, add mutual disrespect, and you now have aggressiveness and hostility. Examine each violent and aggressive exchange and you'll see that both drivers did something to aggravate the situation, not just one. So unless we change our attitude towards one another as drivers, aggressive driving is going to increase and become more dangerous. According to survey results that I've seen on the Internet, the majority of professional drivers have reported experiencing aggressive drivers, and are very worried about it.

Super Driver:
What causes drivers to become so incredibly aggressive? Why do you think it's happening now?

It's more visible now because there are more drivers. In the U.S. you have 177 million licensed drivers. People also drive more miles than before. Yet the roads have not kept up with this tremendous increase in use. Society is paying a big price: 40,000 people killed in car accidents last year, 6 million major crashes costing 200 billion dollars in medical cost and loss in work productivity. Then there is the untold number of hostile driver exchanges which are not recorded, don't cause physical damage, but make life miserable for all drivers.

Super Driver:
Our listeners see a lot of drivers, four wheelers and other truckers everyday. Is there any one type they should be looking for and avoiding?

For years motorists have been taught to be defensive drivers. Never to trust anyone on the road. Treat every driver like a potential hazard and don't mess with anybody. Unfortunately, this defensive driving advice too often translates into an offensive driving style. It's almost as if drivers think, the best defense is a good offense. So I teach that there are three driving styles, corresponding to three levels of emotional intelligence.

The lowest form of emotional intelligence is to drive in an oppositional style. This means letting your emotions do the driving. We all have our favorite pet peeves about driving rules, and if somebody steps on one of them, we react by feeling offended, and expressing it in some form of aggression. For example, you might see another driver forget to turn off the signal indicator. It's automatic to denigrate and ridicule that driver in your mind. Or, a truck is left idling when you feel it shouldn't and you get incensed at the stupidity of the owner. Or, the car in front of you is driving too slow for no reason you can detect, and you rev your engine or blast your horn as you overtake the car, to make sure the driver gets your message of displeasure. This style of oppositional driving will get you into trouble and make your life on the road miserable.

Now the second level of emotional intelligence is the defensive driving style. You know that it's dangerous to mess with other drivers, so you try to avoid contact. You try to stay clean, avoiding rude responses. Unfortunately, too often drivers lose their cool as one of their hot buttons is pushed, and defensive driving turns into offensive attack. To be able to avoid this step downward, you need to take a step upward.

The third and highest level of emotional intelligence as a driver is called supportive driving. We also call it the Aloha spirit driving because in order to do it, you need to adopt a different driving philosophy. Rather than seeing yourself as an antagonist on the road, you can see yourself as a helper, someone who supports other drivers, helping them do whatever they want. You never stand in their way. You never oppose them. You retain an "attitude of latitude." You practice tolerance. You avoid criticizing or denigrating or ridiculing. The benefits to the driver are tremendous. I was truly pleased when I discovered hassle-free driving. It lets you be happy behind the wheel again.

Super Driver:
Can you give a description of a typical aggressive driver? (age, gender, etc...)

From the point of view of the law, there are two types of aggressive driving: illegal and cultural. Let's look at the numbers for the illegal category, first. According to the latest findings summarized by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, there are about 1200 documented cases of violence between drivers every year on U.S. highways. However, their researchers say that there are probably hundreds of thousands of unreported cases. Now looking at just the 1200 reported cases of highway violence, who did this? According to the report, they were young, white, males with a prior history of violence, abuse, and crime. But there were also some older men and a few women. The conclusions I draw from this report is that all drivers are capable of road violence, but those who express it off the road are more likely to express it on the road.

Second, let's look at the cultural type of aggressive driving. Here unfortunately there are no statistics, but, as Dr. Driving, I have my own data from hundreds of drivers I've worked with for the past 15 years. I can say with confidence that nearly all drivers are aggressive to some degree, along a continuum of mild to extreme aggression.

Super Driver:
Generally speaking, I'm a pretty nice person. But I'll admit, when someone cuts in front of me or cuts me off, it really makes me angry! Sometimes I feel like I need to teach them a lesson. How do I personally handle my own feelings of aggression while I'm driving? Why do you feel this anger particularly shows itself while driving?

That's very wise of you to be able to admit the aggressive nature of your driving personality. This is how I became Dr. Driving--when I realized that I was not ready to face up to my hostile driving personality. It started when my wife said to me, "Leon, Grandma thinks you're not a very good driver." I was totally shocked. I started defending myself, I'm a very good driver, I have a clean record, etc. etc. But she explained that I drive too fast for Grandma, especially around corners when she gets thrown over against the door, so she has to hold on. She feels that it's undignified and that I should care more about my passengers feelings.

Well that was big news for me. I wasn't raised that way. The driver was always captain, making all the important decisions, how fast to go, how cold the air should be, or how loud the music, even what station. Yes, the driver was boss. So now this new idea is dangled in front of me by the person I love--my wife: "Leon, you should care about your passengers. And the same with pedestrians. You approach them so fast at crossings that they must get scared of your car. And you don't always signal your turn or lane change. And I never see you courtesy wave. Besides the fact that you're driving like you're in a rush all the time. It scares me!"

Well, after much initial resistance, I took the matter seriously. I started using my tools as a psychologist to analyze my aggressive attitude as a driver. That's how my role as Dr. Driving started.

Super Driver:
What should you do if someone is acting aggressively towards you on the road? What is your advice to our drivers and people in general placed in such a situation?

There is one fundamental rule that everyone should remember: it takes two to make a road rage incident. Think of the structure of a road rage exchange: Step 1: one driver shows a sign of hostility, like honking, tailgating, approaching close or fast, gesturing offensively, and so on. This is the come on. Step 2: the second driver responds with a sign of hostility, like returning a gesture, honking, or whatever the act is. Step 3: the first driver now goes on a second round which might be a repetition of the aggressive act, or more likely, an escalation. And so it goes, escalating, each time arousing stronger emotions of hostility.

So that's the most important thing to understand about road rage and aggressive driving, namely that it escalates by the fact that the drivers respond to each other in kind. This also tells you the solution: do not participate in the escalation. By not reacting, you're exercising power over the other driver. By not visibly responding, you're removing the other driver's emotional energy to hurt you. Of course, it's not easy to act passive and not respond, especially since we're raised in a culture that encourages us to defend ourselves when attacked, otherwise we risk being a spineless wimp with no self-confidence. So it's not easy to remain unprovoked in the face of provocation. To accomplish that you need special practice. I had to practice myself, and I still do.

Super Driver:
Dr. Driving, tell us about your program. What do people need to know and do to get over this 'Road Rage"?

I teach drivers to use a three-step program of gradual change. To remember it, think of the letters AWM. A-for acknowledge; W-for witness; and M-for modify. Acknowledge-Witness-Modify, the AWM program. First, acknowledge that you are an aggressive driver and that this is not the way you want to be. Second, witness yourself as a driver, how you actually are, not just how you handle your vehicle, but what are your thoughts and feelings. This is called self-witnessing yourself as a driver, and is the most important advice I can give to any driver. Third, modify your traits one step at a time. You have start with something very specific, like the tendency to follow too close, or to use the horn too frequently, or letting your engine idle unnecessarily, or talking harshly to your passenger.

So this three-step program is recycled over and over. You keep working on yourself as a driver, especially, witnessing your thoughts and feelings.

This is key because drivers don't know themselves. One particularly good method of self-witnessing is to think out loud. That's right. Speak your thoughts out loud as if you're giving a play-by-play description of what's going on in the driver's mind. Many of my students have tape recorded themselves in traffic. I've been doing it for years. It's a great eye-opening exercise, and it doesn't interfere with your driving.

Super Driver:
It's so easy to be aggressive on the road. So anonymous. Have others been successful with your program?

Dr. Driving: Yes, it's easy to become aggressive on the road because we're so used to it. Aggressive driving is a habit we get used to. We feel very protective and proud of our vehicle--we identify with it. It's an extension of the self and when we feel insulted, we take action to retaliate. We are drawn into a comic book mentality of becoming a road warrior of some type--the Avenger, the Punisher, the Sweeper, the Desperado, the Dragon. Our culture supports this with macho car talk and commercials. Your car has to be a jumping mustang, or a fiery viper, or a super powerful ranger. As children we grow up watching our parents act very aggressively behind the wheel, including swearing and yelling at other drivers. So, it's not easy to back out of all this emotional involvement.

And yet we must. Medical research clearly shows that anger is not good for you. It lowers your immune system and increases your susceptibility to heart attacks and other illness. Also, anger on the road doesn't just stop where it begins. It carries on, affecting your mood for hours. And being an angry driver just reinforces your anger in other areas--how you talk to your spouse and children, your co-workers. Anger lowers your productivity, clouds your thinking, makes you act unpredictably.

Neither I nor my students have been able to eliminate anger symptoms completely. I think aggressive drivers are somewhat in the same position as the people in alcoholic anonymous. I can say that I'm a reformed driver, yet I still experience angry emotions on almost every drive. What's changed a lot is my ability to manage these hostile emotions behind the wheel. Practicing self-witnessing on a permanent basis allows me to back out of my hostile reactions. Since I've been doing this, for the past 15 years, I have never gotten into an aggressive exchange with another driver.

Super Driver:
Dr Driving, any last words for our harried Truck Drivers out there today?

Professional drivers who are on the road for many hours every day are especially at risk and need to practice self-witnessing and self-modification techniques. Unfortunately not too much help is available as yet so they're going to have to rely on their own intelligence and effort. If you have a chance to go on the Internet you can visit Dr. Driving's Web Site. You'll find lots of advice and the self-witnessing reports of many drivers who describe their thoughts and feelings behind the wheel. In a few months our book will be available in bookstores around the country. It's called: Road Rage: Emotional Intelligence for Drivers.


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