Why Does Driving Bring Out the Worst in People?

The Freakonomics blog posts a letter from a DFW area police officer asking: “Why does driving bring out the worst in people?
There are interesting rationales discussed in the comments section. One that I’ve heard most is that people tend to feel anonymous inside of a vehicle, causing them to dehumanize others around them. A good example of this is if you’ve ever been cut-off by someone on the highway. Initially you might let out a string of obscenities and start to lay on the horn…but if the person who cuts you off turns around, and you realize that it’s a family member, or friend, you immediately humanize the individual and quickly feel guilty for being quick to anger. Another commenter delves deeper into this and states:

“[People get angry] in traffic because they are the (self-perceived) victims of theft. Whomever has slowed them down has stolen their time. They are reacting with the same emotions you would have if someone broke into your house and stole something valuable from you. And what is more valuable than your time?”

This is interesting, and explains why I’ve experienced hostility while bicycling on the street in traffic. Though in my mind, I’m only temporarily inconveniencing a driver as they pull around me, the driver feels I am stealing his/her time, and reacts in anger by laying on the horn or yelling out the window. The majority of road rage stems from someone feeling as if they’ve been slowed or stopped from their momentum by another. This also explains the number of angry comments you see from drivers when news blogs report on area bicycling incidents.

Though we’ve often mentioned the low ridership levels of bicycling due to a lack of “perception of safety” to share the road, what we also should note is that the majority of bicyclists are also drivers and know first-hand the dehumanizing and quick-to-temper reactions they’ve felt when behind the wheel. This understanding naturally leads to a lessening of liklihood to take up bicycling to work, the store, school, et cetera. Conversely, when someone begins bicylcing more, they are then able to empathize with other cyclists they see on the road, and if driving, give more room and ease their own emotions about having to decelerate and pass. This explains the “Safety in Numbers” scenario as well, which is seen when cities adopt bicycle infrastructure that brings out greater numbers of cyclists…in other words, your tendency to either be a cyclist or have some form of relationship with a bicyclist is increased.

4 comments

  1. I was reading BoingBoing today, and someone posted a gag gift/cyclist inside joke motorist revenge kit include fake tickets to give to bad drivers, and a sticker that says “I’m a jerk” or something to stick on someone’s car. anyway, bad joke, and it’s intended satire is totally lost on the people who chose to comment. i don’t really care about the thing itself, cause it’s kind of stupid, but in the comments section people are losing their fucking minds.

    it’s alot of “aggrieved” motorists who start out with “all the bikers in my city are dickheads” , then they list all the reasons they feel that a cyclist is not worthy of a common stake of the road, or respect, or a right to their personal safety, and then it’s usually peppered with gleeful references to vehicle on cyclist violence, and the idea that bikers dying in accidents isn’t just okay, or even funny to them, but that cyclists should be singled out and be murdered by cars. okay, i can take a joke, and i can take people being ironic, or people hating on certain behaviors or aspects of what people do to be agitative or vain, or whatever. but the dumb, brute, absolute humorless cruelty i see delivered, and delivered with this morally justified aggrieved/violent tone, from motorists towards cyclists on comment threads, has got to be some kind of weird mass pathology.

    I’ve been lucky in that iv’e had very few incidents on the road, and the bulk of the ire iv’e witnessed is verbal and in theory on message boards. and i bike about 60-100 miles a week, so i guess I’ve been extraordinarily lucky. i’m started to get worried though, like random act of violence with a truck worried. with increased ridership nationwide, the fixed gear boom, urban cycling being everywhere right now, and this ongoing debate that seems to be happening all over the internet, about where cyclists belong, and what THEIR responsibilities are, there seems to be a huge spotlight on cycling, and alot of it is negative. i just worry about the moment when all of this violent rhetoric combines with the motorist pathology you point out in your post, and reaches a tipping point. add unsympathetic law enforcement, and a dash of texas crazy, and we could very realistically see people killed.

    we had that kid from the Riverboat Gamblers last week in Austin who got mowed down and put in the hospital with a broken back, and the guy that hit him posted a craigslist post to the effect of “Cyclist i hit with my car: fuck you. how dare you fuck up my car, and can you believe the police were mad at ME? now you’re in the hospital HAHA” meanwhile dude’s in serious pain with real injuries. this is kind of what the game is now, or is getting to be, or always has been. i dunno, i just don’t like what i read.

  2. One thing that brings out the worst in people more than driving is comments on the Internet. In both cases, I think it has to do with the anonymity and physical separation.

  3. Peter Smith · ·

    i used to have this quote from an older book — can’t find it or the book anymore — but it talked about the physiological effects of driving. people get all amped up in this ‘fight or flight’ scenario, but then are stuck behind a wheel, just sitting there, so that causes all sorts of bad stress, which naturally leads to road raging.

    i must find that quote! 🙂

  4. Are we overthinking this? I always assumed that driving brought out the worst in people for the simple fact that we hate doing it. I’m not talking about joyriding with no particular purpose – which I am still guilty of enjoying from time to time, even though my knowledge of its dangers has greatly reduced that joy. I’m talking about commuting to the office, running errands, making it to an appointment, etc. Most of the time, let’s face it, driving is a drag.
    I don’t exactly love hopping on a subway, bus, etc, but at least I can get some reading done, or just turn my brain off for a while. I’ve also thought that the reason we feel the need to text, talk, watch videos, etc in the car is to distract us from the fact that we’d so prefer to do almost anything else that we will imperil ourselves and others on the road in order to do it.
    I think the physical separation is the reason that the animosity of drivers is able to manifest itself in outright anger (in what other scenario would your primary emotion towards a broken down car in the left lane of the highway be anger instead of sympathy?); but I think the underlying cause is a bit simpler.

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