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Keeping Cool While Driving On Hot Highways

“Road Warriors: Aggressive Drivers Turn Freeways Into Free-For-Alls,” read the headline of an Associated Press article in the Chicago Tribune several years ago. “Armed with everything from firearms to Perrier bottles to pepper spray and eggs,” the reporter’s words began,”America’s drivers are taking frustrations out on each other in startling numbers.”

Aggressive driving and highway conflict are becoming dominant issues. Anybody who drives in rush-hour traffic anywhere will testify that there are far too many out-of-control drivers and that deviant driving causes accidents. Tailgating, obscene gestures, frantic efforts to gain a few dozen yards in traffic moving at a crawl, weaving in and out of traffic, flashing of lights, honking the horn, yelling words no one else hears and which the yeller knows will not be heard–all point to a lot of very frustrated drivers.

Statistics collected and reported regularly by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that traffic isn’t going to get better in the foreseeable future. People are going to be subjected to increasing numbers of potentially accident causing maneuvers performed by drivers who appear to be angry, rude or devil-may-care. The critical phrase here is “who appear to be.” Can one driver really know what is going on in the mind of another driver?

Officials of the California Highway Patrol tell us that the vast majority of instances of aggressive behavior on the roads is unintentional. They urge drivers to avoid taking road aggression as a personal attack. They point out that when drivers react to highway incivility with verbal abuse, negative hand gestures and retaliatory driving maneuvers of their own, it only increases conflict on the roads and the potential for more accidents.

There are several questions that drivers need to answer, if they are going to be able to find more positive ways to respond to road aggression:

  • Why do I judge offensive driving behavior on the part of the other driver to be intentional and then react negatively to it?
  • How do I stop attributing unfounded motives to the driver performing the objectionable behavior?
  • Can I learn to suspend judgment of that person?
  • Is it possible to be a courteous driver even when I may not feel like it?

Understanding How Unproductive Thinking Patterns Develop

What does it take for drivers to change their negative behavior? Human brains are finely tuned decision-making systems designed to make quick judgments on a wide variety of perplexing events. How far away is that car in the distance? Is that driver cutting me off or did she just fail to look in her mirror before changing lanes? Is that person driving recklessly or simply rushing to a hospital due to a medical emergency?

A growing number of behavioral studies point to patterns of perception that influence how people view everything from aberrant driving behavior to minority college applicants. These patterns, experts say, confirm that perception is an active process in which people color the world with their prior expectations and see what they expect to see, rejecting any information that would challenge their established point of view.

Our minds use past experience to jump to the “most likely” conclusion. Yet these judgments can also lead people astray. An assumption that goes beyond the facts and makes sweeping claims bearing little relationship to what actually happened is the standard definition of a stereotype. Stereotypes cause us to prejudge people before we ever make contact with them. They cause us to base a judgment of a person on limited information, as if it represented everything about the person.

“Male drivers are much more aggressive and potentially violent on the road than female ones. They flaunt driving safety, scorn highway patrol officers and view traffic laws as simply obstacles to circumvent.” That’s the stereotype! Is it true? Sure, sometimes. Name any stereotype and you can always find someone who fits it. It’s almost impossible to get rid of it because people usually will find enough anecdotes to reinforce their position.

Recognizing Cultural Assumptions As Sources Of Unproductive Thinking Patterns

The partisan lenses through which people look very much determine how they see other drivers on the highway. When startled by instances of aggressive driving behavior, drivers often resort to distorted projections and labeling that are unsupported by reasoning or argument. People tend to pigeonhole fellow drivers–to explain certain behavior by citing a driver’s ethnic background, age, color or other physical characteristic. These viewpoints reflect broader frameworks called “cultural assumptions” that function within the groups, nations and cultures to which people belong.

Carlos Lozada, an economic analyst in Atlanta, includes the following poignant statement in his Christian Science Monitor column on July 16, 1998: “I don’t wish to live in a world in whic


Elisabeth Seaman

Elisabeth Seaman, Learn2Resolve Mediated over 600 cases for public and private institutions, community programs and for families and individuals   Bilingual in Spanish and English.    Honored for her contributions to the field of mediation by San Mateo County and the California State Legislature.   Partner in the mediation firm,… MORE >


Jack Hamilton

Jack Hamilton has held positions as an instructor at Stanford University, as a senior research scientist at the American Institutes for Research, as director of executive services at the Institute for Information Management, and as co-founder of The Information Group, Inc. He holds a B.A. from Harvard, an M.A. from… MORE >

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