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On the roads: war or peace?

By: staff

Date: Wednesday, 13. June 2007

Is the standard of driving on our roads worse than it was a decade or two ago? Is highway culture breaking down into an uncivilized war zone of "me first" driving laced with aggression and hostility?

If there is a definitive answer to that question it will likely emerge from a global conference on aggressive driving now taking place on the Internet. The conference, which began on October 16 and continues until November 30, isn't just about road rage. It's more about common, everyday driving incidents which may or may not be seen as aggressive, depending on a driver's point of view.

For traffic safety experts, aggressive driving is more complicated than simple acts of hostility between drivers. Depending on how "aggressive driving" is defined, it could include behaviors such as speeding, tailgating, weaving across lanes, crowding into intersections as lights change, even failure to signal a lane change. It might even extend beyond that to the culture we live in-one which places competitive values over cooperative ones, which admires the aggressive "me first" individual scrambling for material success and regards the polite "after you" type as being weak.

Conference sponsored by Ontario Ministry of Transportation

The conference is being sponsored by the Ministry of Transportation of the Canadian province of Ontario in cooperation with the U.S. Transportation Research Board. Experts on driver behavior from around the world have contributed papers for discussion and moderators are on hand to keep discussions on track towards a productive outcome. The web conference, which is free and open to all, is part of transport Minister David Turnbull's Action Plan for Safer Roads . It's also a recognition that clamping down on so-called aggressive driving presents many challenges. What seems aggressive to one driver may not seem so to another. The driver attempting to squeeze into a solid line of traffic on a busy road may feel that those not making space are being aggressive. The drivers in line may be angered by "pushy" people who try to jostle in ahead of them.

Seven new research papers

The conference features seven papers which cover topics ranging from emotional intelligence to actual studies of aggressive behavior in traffic. A literature review brings visitors up to date on what science has to say about aggressive driving. A study of complaints about bad driving on freeways around San Diego received by the California Highway Patrol attempts to get the measure of who's doing what and how to catalogue behaviors. An Australian researcher looks at attitudes towards speed and differences between the sexes in this regard. Belgian researchers submitted a report on a special educational program they developed for drivers caught in a tough crackdown on aggressive driving in that country.

University of Hawaii psychologists Leon James and Dianne Nahl see aggressive driving as "emotionally impaired" driving. The paper they've submitted for discussion views driving style as a cultural phenomenon in which a stalemate now exists between, on the one hand, the best efforts of traffic engineers, law enforcement, policymakers and auto manufacturers to make driving safer, and on the other a competitive environment in which individual drivers accept a level of risk in order to achieve their goals.

Driving, say Nahl and James, "is emotionally challenging because unexpected things happen constantly." Emotional intelligence is a critical factor in safe driving. The reason that U.S. traffic fatalities stubbornly resist efforts to bring them below the some 40,000 per year they've been sitting at for the past decade is, they believe, due to cultural-environmental factors that work to maintain risk levels. A competitive society which values individual aggressiveness helps to sustain the friction level on our roads. In addition to this, the authors suggest that driving is not supported by a training and education system that adequately prepares people for the volatile and potentially deadly mix of traffic and emotion. As well, they write, attitudes such as badmouthing other drivers and acting aggressively towards them are passed on from parents to children.

For the two psychologists, car advertising is adding to the problem by emphasizing power and speed as selling points. A recent report from the Virginia-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) supports this view. Since 1981, states the report, the percentage of new car buyers who say that safety features are "extremely" or "very" important to them has increased steadily-from 64% to 84% in 1999. But over the same period, the makers of car ads have pushed safety more and more into the background. As a theme, it generally appears in fewer than 10% of advertising and has been replaced by themes that emphasize power and performance. "Even when performance isn't front and center in a commercial it's present on some level in about half of all the ads," says IIHS vice president of research, Susan Ferguson.

As if to drive the point home, a recent TV advertisement for the new BMW M5 model describes it as "The fastest sedan on the planet." The ad depicts it as faster than an FXE rocket car blasting across the desert-presumably in search of a new land speed record.

As countries, states, and provinces around the world struggle to mount campaigns against aggressive driving and support them with various programs and even laws, the definition of aggressive driving is crucial. As James and Nahl point out, there isn't much agreement. Laws proposed are often fuzzy and amongst the public there is confusion. One of their studies indicated that between 20% and 70% of respondents did not agree on whether specific violations should be considered aggressive. In a Los Angeles survey, for example, "50% did not agree that speeding up to a yellow light, honking or blocking the passing lane are aggressive." And drivers typically saw others as more aggressive than themselves.

Conference discussions focus on definitions and causal factors

At the conference itself, some interesting discussions are taking shape, particularly around the issue of speed and speed limits. Are drivers who go faster being more aggressive? How should speed limits be set and to what extent should the rights of drivers of faster cars on higher speed roads be balanced against the rights of those who want to go slower?

Several participants have expressed the view that aggression is often a response to bad driving by others. Why not place the blame on the bad drivers where it belongs? Does bad driving by others by others absolve us of responsibility, or do we worsen the situation by driving aggressively in response?

The sponsors expect that the conference will make progress towards defining what is meant by aggressive driving, and for that matter, what is meant by speeding, or bad driving. This will help enormously in developing solutions to the present dissatisfaction with driving conditions on roads around the world.

Related links:

Participant Richard Raub has also provided an excellent summary in our general discussion area on the results from a panel of experts who met in Washington in November to discuss aggressive driving issues.

Further comments to this article have been disabled.

All Comments (5)

Showing 1 - 5 comments


i know who you are and i am coming to get you kenny G

Kenny G,

I think I know who Bill and Ron are. Traffic violators course, right?




Intelligent remark Ron!

but seriously folks, I think what's lacking on our roads is a severe lack of enforcement. Not so much enforcement of speed limits and parking but giving out tickets for unsafe driving (tailgating, cutting in and out, aggression), obstruction (slow driving in passing lanes e.g.)

Also, from what I see in comments about some articles on this web site, there is HUGE ignorance about rules and what is acceptable driving.

Looks to me like some people feel everyone should get out of their way if they feel like driving fast. Then there are those who absent-mindedly (or aggressively perhaps), cruise in the left lane and make a road block.

It will take a lot of driver education or enforcement, or both, to get everyone working together.



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