The Psychology of Driving

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the psychology of driving (Warning: this post contains no actual science). Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how humans react, primarily emotionally, to the experience of driving and the circumstances in which we find ourselves driving. I’d bet there are actual studies out there on this topic, but for the moment, let’s just think about our own emotions when on the road.

This, for example, is frustrating (for the car driver; I’ve never driven a tractor):

Slow going (image via Wikipedia user Hans Deragon)

And so is this:

I’ll try going the other way, thank you (Image of an Israeli traffic jam via Wikimedia)

Think about someone in front of you driving more slowly than you’d like in left lane of the freeway. Think about the car in front of you being slow to start at the newly green light. Think about Grandpa out for a leisurely drive when you need to get to work. Or even worse, think about one of those darn biking scofflaws taking the lane (in between running red lights, skimming from god-fearing taxpayers and endangering soccer moms’ children).

The first three may be technically illegal and/or dangerous. None of them are a material delay to your driving experience. All of them are frustrating. Why?

If you spend a half mile behind a bike, or two miles doing 55 instead of 65 or a few extra seconds at a light, your trip will range from exactly the same (if, for example, you’d have to stop at the next light anyway) to a few seconds longer. Why does it feel so important?

I think an answer to that question is critical to thinking about how to design our roads and, hopefully, make them safer for all users. If the answer is those lost seconds are precious and drivers can’t be asked to spare them, then maybe we can just keep expanding road capacity (to heck with induced demand!) and we’ll be a nation of happily speeding drivers.

In case the sarcasm isn’t obvious, I don’t think those seconds are that precious. And I don’t think anyone who stops to think about it actually believes they are.

Instead, I think what’s frustrating about these experiences isn’t that we’re not going slightly faster. It’s that we’re going slower than our context tells us is appropriate. Driving less than 30 miles per hour somewhere like here, for example, doesn’t inspire the same rage:

Narrow street with parked cars

When I was a kid we lived on Long Lake Road in New Brighton. When we first moved there, it was a winding two-lane county road with a gravel shoulder. Then it got rebuilt with wide paved shoulders and cement curbs. I remember my dad consistently making a point of driving exactly 30 miles per hour down the new, wider, safer-feeling road. There was always someone tailgating him. Are the north suburbanites just scofflaws?

Nope. It was “safe” for the vehicles to go significantly faster than 30 mph down the new, wider, straighter road and they could feel it. Asking them to consciously restrain themselves to 30 mph (or below) is a losing game, even in the days before cell phones. Compliance takes constant vigilance that humans may simply be incapable of maintaining even if they want to.

One of the insights of behavioral economics was that people aren’t really aware of why or how they make decisions. The decisions happen, and people tell stories to explain how or why they happened.

I think something similar happens with driving speeds. People drive at the speed that feels safe from their perspective behind the steering wheel. When we make streets wider, get rid of parked cars, fail to mark crosswalks, leave off bike lanes, etc. we’re making drivers feel fewer conflicts, thus making them feel safer, increasing the speed at which they will want to travel, increasing their frustration when something makes them slow down and making them more dangerous to each other and everyone who isn’t in a car.

That’s certainly not good for pedestrian and cyclists, and I don’t think it’s even good for drivers.

Adam Miller

About Adam Miller

Adam Miller works downtown and lives in South Minneapolis. He's an avid user of the city's bike paths, sidewalks and skyways. He's not entirely certain he knows what the word "urbanist" means.

24 thoughts on “The Psychology of Driving

  1. Wayne

    “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the psychology of driving (Warning: this post contains no actual science). ”

    It’s ok, psychology apparently contains very little actual science anyway (see recent articles about experiments not being repeatable).

    But there’s definitely something wrong with people’s heads when they think it’s cool to endanger my life so they can make a turn on red 5 seconds earlier.

    1. John

      This is true regardless of scientific field. Something like 80-90% of all papers published in journals are not replicable. We were talking about it recently in the chemistry lab I work in. It’s kind of a major issue for everyone working in science right now, and I expect to hear a lot more about it in the near future.

      1. Nathanael

        Well, thank goodness, it’s proven by replicable studies that:

        — roads which “feel narrower” (trees tight in on either side, curbs or grass or parked cars tight in on either side) cause motorists to drive slower
        — roads with more curves (chicanes) cause motorists to drive slower

        — speed bumps do not cause most motorists to drive slower
        — speed limit signs do not cause most motorists to drive slower
        — painted lanes do not cause most motorists to drive slower

        This gives us a good basis for designing roads so that people won’t speed. We just need to actually *do* it.

  2. David Baur

    I think you’re right on that we get frustrated when our context tells us a higher speed is safer, and I’d expand that idea slightly. It’s not just that the design makes us FEEL safer, it’s also that previous experience has PROVEN that to be true, at least at the individual level. In other words, “usually when I’m on this road I can drive 45 mph with no problem so only being able to 30 mph right now is a travesty.”

    Highway traffic drives us nuts not just because the interstate is designed for 70+ mph but because we have all been able to actually achieve that speed under ideal circumstances. It creates a false expectation that “ideal” = normal.

  3. Julia

    I totally agree with all this. I also notice, as a never-driver who walks everywhere, that the points where drivers are aggressive, anti-social, and harassing me are almost always streets and intersections where all the cues of the built environment say “CAR CAR CAR.” And then I get belligerent back, because adrenaline and OMG, I could’ve died in this crosswalk! and fifth time in this commute.

    I don’t think that bellicose drivers with anger issues are all hanging out at these same intersections or on these streets. It’s that our traffic engineers and city planners have designed the road so that it conveys a message about who it belongs to (and, therefore, who really doesn’t belong there) and over and over again our public space is for cars first, foremost, and at 30MPH, schoolchildren skipping and wheelchairs rolling be damned.

    It puzzles me that we don’t seem to be willing to talk about the behavioral design of our cities as a field, given how massive an impact it has. Understanding things like ergonomics, human factors, UX, human behavior, human psychology, and basics of human design, is so vital to healthy cities, from decreasing aggressive and dangerous behavior from drivers to helping evacuate buildings or neighborhoods in emergencies. Instead, we blame individuals for doing exactly what the systems we’ve designed and built tell or encourage them to do (whether it’s people on foot crossing LRT tracks midblock or drivers speeding past schools).

    Regardless of how much we claim to know about human behavior, we design urban environments that have life and death consequences depending on how real live people interact with them. We’re already manipulating human behavior and lives with our design choices, even if we’re uncomfortable acknowledging that fact; we need to start doing it with UX principles, best practices, and basic human values (universal access! protect the vulnerable! common good!) motivating it.

    Thanks for bringing this up.

  4. Rich

    Lots to digest here. I’d first start with your premise that only the first 3 of your 4 scenarios are a problem. The biker ignoring traffic controls is exhibiting the same behaviour, albeit at 15-20 MPH, not 30-35 MPH. Same problem, just a different mode and reference point. But your point is taken.

    I would agree, slowing traffic down and changing driver expectations would go a long way toward reducing this sort of aggressive driving behavior. I know for myself, when I am behind a tractor my expectations are changed, at least until the tractor turns off. But I am absolutely guilty of expecting everyone to start moving the moment a light turns green.

    1. Wayne

      15ish mph and a 200ish lbs is a LOT less kinetic energy than 30-35mph and 2000-3000lbs. The potential for harm is almost exponentially bigger. You cannot even reasonably compare the two if you’re talking about the potential for harm to a human being.

      1. Rich

        Well it can cause enough harm if that cyclist is running a red light and is about to hit my driver side door as happened last week. That’s going to hurt the rider even if I’m barely moving, as was the case.

        I think this discussion has more value when we acknowledge that it’s not just drivers who are impatient. I’m not talking about failure to stop for a stop sign when there isn’t a car in sight. I’m talking about what motivates a cyclist to bypass traffic controls and ignore rules when interacting with cars. The opening to the article seemed to imply that only cars were a problem. Given the set up to this discussion, that’s misleading.

        1. Wayne

          I refuse to accept false equivalences about this sort of thing. The top concern we should frame any discussion of bad road behavior with is the potential for harm, and in that regard cars and their inattentive drivers will always be the #1 concern.

          I really don’t care if pedestrians or cyclists are impatient and flout the laws, as that they are only putting themselves at risk. Drivers who flout laws and drive recklessly however are a menace to society and need to be stopped. They murder (yes, MURDER) tens of thousands every year in this country and we accept it as a fact of life because no one wants to challenge the status quo and everyone worries that they might be the next one to cream someone and end a human life because of their own bad driving habits.

          So no, I won’t accept your premise that we should be just as mad at anyone else. If we get to the point where automobile drivers kill as few people as cyclists every year I might reconsider, but until that point … NO. If the ‘traffic controls’ in place were built exclusively for cars and not with other users in mind, it’s still a car problem because it was built just for cars and not a ‘everyone problem.’ This is practically victim blaming.

          1. Rich

            This is a nice little club you all have here, not much room for nuanced discussion but it’s your club and you’ve made the rules. I’ll just say this and leave.

            My initial response was to try and articulate that it’s human behaviour that’s the problem, not the mode. Yes, the system is rigged for cars, yes my car weighs 100x what a bike weighs, yes it’s a lethal weapon; I get all that.

            I was trying to say that the mistakes we make that allow us to kill our fellow citizens OR kill ourselves maybe come out of the same frustrations we have when our situation doesn’t match our previous experience of what that situation represents. Which is what I mistakenly thought the premise of this post was.

            I appreciate the work you all are trying to do with this website but it’s going to remain a relatively small club with minimal impact if you can’t tolerate an exchange of ideas. Good luck to you all. I’ll stop my trolling now.

            1. Wayne

              Nuance is not the same thing as making false equivalences or victim blaming. Every time anyone discusses bad behavior by drivers that puts human life at risk, someone inevitably brings up “BUT PEOPLE ON BIKES DO THAT TOO!” like it changes anything at all about the fact that cars and their drivers are killing thousands and thousands of people every year. It’s some kind of twisted knee-jerk reaction drivers have to hearing anything that might imply their preferred choice of locomotion might just be responsible for a big chunk of problems in our society. “B-b-b-but bikers do it too!” is not a valid defense of driving habits that kill people.

              So if you can’t take the introspection that comes with thinking about how the car culture you participate in is dangerous and destructive, I don’t particularly care. It’s my life on the line and I will get good and worked up if I want to, because no one else seems to care about making the world a safer place for people outside of cars.

            2. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

              I take your point that people who are not in cars can be aggressive too, although personally I think being behind the wheel of a car is a contributing factor.

              Also, “bikes don’t follow traffic laws” is a frustratingly frequent response to any attempt to discuss cars, drivers and infrastructure and transportation, which is why I sarcastically followed the perfectly appropriate action of taking the lane with a litany of ever more preposterous things people who get angry about bikes say. Responding to that with what looks like a complaint about people on bikes was not destined for a cheery response from the peanut gallery, as you’ve seen.

            3. Rob

              Personally, I find the road rage more directed at me when I’m driving, especially when I slow down in school zones to 20mph. Drivers behind me tailgate and even honk.

              I think there is a difference at stop signs and red lights for drivers and cyclists. Stopping as a cyclist,and then restarting, is more like asking a driver to step out of the car, do 3 or 4 knee bends, and then get back in and go. It is not about frustration, but about physical exertion and balance.

              fwiw, I’m primarily a driver, although I also walk, take a bus or train, and occasionally ride a bike to the bus stop

              1. Wayne

                It sounds like you may be one of the rare breed of ‘considerate drivers’ that may as well be unicorns around here. And the rage of drivers doesn’t discriminate against mode–it’s directed at *anyone* or *anything* that gets in their way and possibly delays them by the tiniest bit. Keep fighting the good fight and driving responsibly.

                1. Nathanael

                  As a conscientious careful driver, I am amazed at how many drivers… aren’t.

                  I use tailgating as an easy test. A driver who is tailgating will typically be driving badly in a dozen other ways. A driver who maintains safe following distance will usually be a very good driver in almost every way.

                  I’d guess from random observation that about 2/3 of drivers in the US tailgate.

                  This is pretty bad.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller Post author

      The biker in number 4 was taking the lane, which is neither illegal nor a problem.

      The parenthetical is a joke about exactly what you are going here.

      1. Rich

        Sorry, didn’t mean to be making a joke, as my reply to Wayne explained. The cyclist scared the sh** out of me and likewise, considering his expression. I’m all for taking a lane when biking.

  5. Pingback: Serious Question: Why Does Losing a Few Seconds Lead to Road Rage? |

  6. Jonathan Krall

    Excellent article, but I think it misses a key point. People talk legalities, but are very attached to unwritten social rules. They can be very upset over violations of social codes even while not understanding why they are so upset.

    On the road, social rule number one is Thou Shalt Not Slow Down Thy Fellow Driver Unless Absolutely Necessary. Forcing another driver to slow down to below the speed limit is considered extremely rude (I expect that even your father did not slow to below the speed limit). When cyclists “take the lane” they usually violate this rule. I think road rage is a combination of frustration and a sense that others are deliberately doing harm by being rude or spiteful.

    This unwritten rule is the reason that cycling advocates want to get rid of “share the road” signs. To a driver, sharing the road means not violating the social rules. To a cyclist, sharing the road means allowing a cyclist to ride safely. Bicycle May Use Full Lane signs explicitly state that cyclists need not go out of their way to allow faster traffic to pass (which is what they would have to do to comply with the social rule).

  7. Nils

    There are many articles and books about the psychology of driving going back to the invention of cars. Many of them examine driver behavior including how we deal with speed, aggression, distraction, rules, and the reasons we drive. It’s a complex subject often dominated by dubious or at least overly narrow science, engineering and laws. Simple observation makes it clear that driving has many pitfalls and that everywhere cars are allowed to dominate then people act poorly. Beyond the psychology of driving and controlling speed, we really need to stop catering to cars if we are ever going to make meaningful changes–not an easy task when roughly one in every five jobs is related to automobiles. Good luck with your efforts in Minnesota. (I am in Oregon but found your article interesting and well written.)

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Good quote on the psychology of automobility from Nigel Thrift:

      ““First, that drivers experience cars as extensions of their bodies. Hence their outrage on becoming the subject of adverse driving manoeuvres by other drivers: their tacit automobilized embodiment is cut away from them and they are left ‘without any persona with which one can relate respectably to others’ (Katz, 2000: 46). Second, that, as a result of this and the fact that drivers attach all manner of meanings to their manoeuvres that other drivers cannot access (what Katz calls ‘life metaphors’), driving can often be a highly emotional experience in which the petty realities of everyday situations are impressed on an unwilling recipient causing anger and distress precisely because they are so petty, or in which a carefully nurtured identity is forcefully undermined causing real fury. Third, that the repertoire of reciprocal communication that a car allows is highly attenuated – the sounding of horns, the flashing of headlights, the aggressive use of brake lights and hand gestures – within a situation that is already one in which there are limited cues available, occasioned by the largely tail-to-tail nature of interaction. Drivers cannot therefore communicate their concerns as fully as they would want and there is therefore a consistently high level of ambiguity in driver-to-driver inter- action. As a result, a considerable level of frustration and anger (and frustration and anger about being frustrated and angered) can be generated.”

      (Thrift, Driving in the City, 47:

      1. Jim


        I’ve been looking for this research into this field (on the web only so not a thoroughly) so thank you for this quote and the link to the paper, which I will read in full later.

        As a self-diagnosed sufferer of “Motor Mania” I’m very keen to find out what comes over me when behind the wheel – despite my best intentions to be courteous to all.

        My best guess is that both “Motor Mania” – the act of getting behind the wheel – and the car-centric environment are major contributors to the problems, though determining in what proportions and situations is complex.


        PS Adam, a good article. Thank you for writing it and opening up this topic for further discussion and examination.

Comments are closed.