Involved in road safety research for the past ten years, Amanda Stephens’ background is in the psychology behind driver behaviour.

Amanda completed her PhD in Psychology at the University of Surrey, UK. Her PhD work focused on the role that emotions, particularly anger, play in how a driver evaluates and responds to their current driving environment. She has published extensively in this area. Amanda is currently a Research Fellow at Monash University Accident Research Centre, a position she took up in 2014 after spending a number of years working in road safety in the UK and Republic of Ireland.

Here, she talks to Three60 about her latest study, Aggressive Driving on Australian Roads, carried out with Michael Fitzharris for Monash University Accident Research Centre in Australia.

Amanda, can you summarise the study?
We reported the results of a national study conducted in 2014. We asked almost 3,000 drivers to report how frequently over the past two years they had engaged in four types of aggressive driving behaviour: honking the horn in anger, expressing anger any way possible, tailgating and chasing another driver. In doing this, we were able to grab a snapshot in time of the frequency of some of these aggressive driving behaviours.

What surprised you the most?
We found that 18% of our sample had, at least once in the past two years, chased another driver as a result of being angry. More concerning, 6% reported they had displayed this behaviour occasionally or often. We didn’t ask drivers about what they did after chasing another driver, so we do not know whether this resulted in a physical altercation or whether the driver ceased chasing with no further action.

Aggressive driving isn’t something we tend to hear about regularly – how common is it?
Our results suggest that minor forms of aggression are relatively common on the road. The majority of our sample, 86%, reported engaging in at least one of the four behaviours at least once across a two-year period. The most common behaviour was honking the horn out of anger, with 70% of the sample reporting this and 60% reported expressing anger any way they could. Approximately one third of the sample reported showing these behaviours occasionally.

What exactly is meant by the term “aggressive driving” and how does this translate to on-road behaviour?
While most people consider aggressive driving to be “road rage”, aggressive driving covers a much broader range of behaviours. These range on a continuum and include those that seem relatively benign, for example honking the horn when angry to more extreme behaviours that would be classified as road rage (e.g., getting out of the car to have a physical fight with someone).

A key element underlying aggressive driving is that it is a deliberate behaviour that is designed to intimidate or “punish” another driver. It is usually, but not always, a reaction to an event the aggressor perceives as anger-provoking.

What makes a driver become aggressive?
Aggressive driving can be a driving style, or an expression of anger or annoyance. We found that drivers who reported being aggressive were also more likely to report other risky driving behaviours such as drunk driving and using a hand-held, mobile phone while driving and speeding. This shows that aggressive driving fits into a larger pattern of risky driving that we know to be associated with increased risk of crash.

Our research has also shown that drivers who engage in these risky behaviours do so because they tend to underestimate the risk of harm involved, they believe they will not be caught or penalized for this behaviour, and often they have friends and family who also display these behaviours. Therefore, there is a social acceptability of these risky behaviours.

Drivers may be aggressive as a response to anger. Anger is usually likely when a driver perceives that another road user has intentionally and illegitimately blocked their progress in some way.

One problem we have is that drivers often have preconceived and derogatory notions of other drivers and this can influence how a driver evaluates a situation and how they interpret the behaviours of other drivers. In other words, some drivers are predisposed to misinterpret the actions of others as being deliberate and avoidable, when this may not be the case. Consequently, drivers report the most anger in situations where they believe other drivers have been directly hostile or discourteous towards them and those where a slower driver is impeding their progress and there appears to be no reason for the reduced speed.

Pre-existing mood, time pressures, previous driving incidents and the value of one’s time when driving can also influence how a driver perceives and responds to the driving environment.

Is there a specific profile of an aggressive driver?
In our study we found that males aged 22 – 39 reported more extreme and more frequent aggression. This is interesting as there are often no gender differences in the tendency to become angry behind the wheel, and when such differences are found, females report slightly higher anger propensities. However, younger males are more likely to report aggression and this finding speaks again to a social acceptability of aggressive driving.

Driver behaviour is something you’ve studied for several years. How has driver behaviour changed over that time?
Anecdotally, road rage appears to be increasing, however we have no data to show whether aggression is becoming more frequent on the roads. Interestingly, I have studied aggressive driving in the UK, Ireland and Australia, and in each country it is seen as a problem. Most drivers will have a story about a time when another driver behaved aggressively towards them. When we explore these further we find that the causes and consequences are similar, regardless of the location.

What impact does driver behaviour have on road safety at a wider level?
As I mentioned earlier, aggressive driving can be part of a larger pattern of risky driving behaviours that we know are associated with increased crash risk. In our study we found that 96% of the drivers who had reported being involved in crash also reported having been aggressive on the roads; 60% of drivers who had been aggressive also reported speeding, 18% had used a hand-held phone while driving and 9% had driven when over the legal blood alcohol content limit.

Are drivers really aware of their own driving behaviours?
Our research suggests that drivers may not be aware of the risks their driving behaviours pose to themselves and others. We also need to consider the follow-on effects of intimidating more vulnerable drivers and this is an area where further research is warranted.

What can drivers do to improve their own driving behaviour?
Try to be patient, allow plenty of time for travel and remember that aggressive behaviours are not worth the risk they pose. Keep in mind that, in most cases, it is unlikely that other drivers are deliberately trying to be discourteous.

More broadly, we know that drivers will engage in risky behaviours when they believe they won’t get caught, if friends and family also engage in these behaviours and when they underestimate the risk of harm involved. Therefore, to reduce aggression and other risky behaviours we need to focus on changing the social acceptability of them, educate drivers about the risks and encourage the idea that we all need to share the roads.