Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Aggressive Driving

Guide No. 61 (2010)

by Colleen Laing

The Problem of Aggressive Driving

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

This guide begins by describing the problem of aggressive driving and reviewing factors that increase its risks. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local aggressive-driving problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem and what is known about these from evaluative research and police practice.

Aggressive driving includes what is commonly referred to as road rage, which involves assault motivated by driver anger. This guide covers aggressive driving and the driving-related triggers for road rage. Aggressive driving has gained widespread public attention over the past 20 years largely due to highly publicized crashes and crimes associated with road rage.

Aggressive driving is but one aspect of the larger set of problems related to impaired, dangerous, and irresponsible vehicle use. This guide is limited to addressing the particular harms aggressive driving creates. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide, each of which requires separate analysis, include:

  • drunken and impaired driving,
  • reckless driving,
  • joyriding,
  • speeding,
  • street racing,
  • unlicensed driving,
  • hit-and-run crashes,
  • red-signal and stop-sign violations, and
  • inattentive driving.

Other guides in this series—all of which are listed at the end of this guide—cover some of these related problems. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.org.

General Description of the Problem

Aggressive driving refers to dangerous driving that disregards safety and courtesy. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines aggressive driving as occurring "when individuals commit a combination of moving traffic offenses so as to endanger other persons or property."1 Driving behaviors that commonly constitute aggressive driving include:

  • speeding,
  • racing,
  • frequently changing lanes,
  • cutting off other drivers,
  • failing to signal,
  • running red lights,
  • failing to yield,
  • tailgating,
  • slowing rapidly to discourage a tailgater, and
  • boxing other cars in and using other intimidation maneuvers.2

In addition, aggressive drivers may further try to intimidate their victims by shouting or making obscene gestures at them. Several different legislatively-defined driving offenses are similar in some ways to aggressive driving. While statutory definitions vary from state to state, they include the following:

Careless, inattentive, distracted, or negligent driving involves failing to exercise normal care, or endangering people or property, while driving a vehicle. Many states are adding to their statutes specific language prohibiting use of certain technologies while driving. Some states include negligent driving under reckless or impaired driving statutes so that defendants plead to the lesser negligent-driving charge to avoid the more serious charge.

Reckless driving is a more serious form of careless or negligent driving. It is variously defined as creating a substantial or unjustifiable risk of harm, a conscious or wanton disregard of safety, and/or a gross deviation from reasonable behavior in the situation.

Aggressive driving addresses many of the same behaviors covered by reckless driving statutes, but adds a notion of a pattern of behaviors occurring over a short period and/or intention. As intention is difficult to prove, states with statutes that require the standard of intention be met often see aggressive driving charged as reckless driving. Driving behaviors included in the definition of aggressive driving could result from aggression, selfishness, or competition.

As many of the behaviors that constitute aggressive driving could also occur in the absence of aggression (if a driver is inattentive, for example), some state legislatures use a threshold of three or more potentially aggressive driving behaviors committed in a sequence or over a short period in their statutory definitions. Aggressive driving definitions should cover hostile, competitive, and selfishly motivated driving behaviors.

Road rage is a more extreme form of aggression that involves criminal intimidation and/or violence precipitated by driving activities. Road rage involves an intent to harm, can involve use of the vehicle as a weapon, or can take place outside the vehicle(s) involved.

Driving provokes anger more often than other activities.3 Driving is a goal-oriented activity, the purpose being to get from point A to point B expeditiously; yet people easily and frequently thwart driving goals. Driving is also a stressful activity that exposes drivers and passengers to potentially significant dangers. Incivility amongst drivers is common4 and reliably provokes anger in its recipients. For all these reasons, drivers report frequently feeling angry.5

Anger may, but usually does not, lead to aggressive driving or road rage. Situational, cultural, and individual factors combine to cause angry drivers to behave aggressively behind the wheel.

Prevalence of Aggressive Driving

Two-thirds of traffic fatalities involve behaviors commonly associated with aggressive driving, such as speeding, running red lights, and improperly changing lanes.6 One-third of all traffic injuries result from aggressive driving.7 Speeding, a common element in aggressive driving, contributes to about one-third of fatal crashes.8

Several studies have shown that somewhere between 20 percent and 35 percent of drivers have honked their horns, yelled, obscenely gestured, and cursed at other drivers. Estimates indicate that from 6 percent to 28 percent of drivers have tailgated or blocked other drivers' vehicles.9 These behaviors can be part of a pattern of acts that constitute aggressive driving, and they can also provoke anger that could lead to aggressive driving in others.

Research findings are mixed on whether aggressive driving is more prevalent today than in the past. What is known is that aggressive driving occurs frequently and is a significant contributor to injury and fatality collisions. While the violent and assaultive acts that constitute road rage are rare, they deserve police attention.

Harms Caused by Aggressive Driving

Car crashes are the leading cause of accidental death and injury in the United States and the leading cause of all deaths amongst young people.10 Aggressive driving is responsible for a significant proportion of all car crashes. Aggressive drivers kill two to four times more people than drunken drivers.11 Aggressive driving creates an atmosphere of incivility on the roads, heightening driving anxiety and triggering more driving anger.

Factors Contributing to Aggressive Driving

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Frustration and Anger

Frustration at being slowed or thwarted from a driving goal can easily lead to anger.12 Frustration can also lead to selfish or competitive aggressive behavior—behavior designed to achieve personal driving goals at the expense of others or the common good.

Frustration and anger do not, however, always result in aggression. Driving aggression occurs when a mix of personal, situational, environmental, and cultural factors combine to reduce the inhibitions most drivers feel against acting aggressively. Personal factors such as antisocial and competitive tendencies can make a driver prone to aggression, but aggression is unlikely to result absent other contributing factors. Environmental factors such as the anonymity cars provide, situational factors such as feeling urgent about meeting driving goals, and cultural factors such as approval for placing personal goals over the common good can all contribute to lower the qualms drivers would otherwise have against aggressive behavior.

Demographics

Research suggests that the single largest group of aggressive American drivers is poorly educated white men under 30 years old who drive high-performance vehicles.13 There is a strong correlation between such young white men and violent crimes, serious traffic offenses, license suspensions, and minor moving violations. These young white men also appear to be the most likely group to engage in more extreme road rage behaviors.14 They may be more prone to have antisocial, hostile personalities (as described in the next section). In general, younger people tend to lack the impulse control gained with age, and men tend toward more aggressive behavior than women.

Because members of this group so often break traffic laws, they will be disproportionately represented in any traffic enforcement effort. Accordingly, police officers will contact the most dangerous drivers by enforcing the entire range of moving violations.15

While young white men are the largest single group of aggressive drivers, there is no single definitive profile of aggressive-driving perpetrators.16 Otherwise law-abiding citizens commit many aggressive driving acts.17

Personality or Individual Traits

There appear to be two primary personality types prone to becoming aggressive behind the wheel. One is an antisocial, hostile personality; the other, a competitive one.18 Antisocial drivers are associated with the young white male group. There is significant overlap between the factors associated with antisocial driving and those associated with criminal behavior.19 These include:

  • impulsiveness,
  • sensation-seeking,
  • unrealistic thinking (underestimating risks and overrating abilities to handle problems),
  • poor problem-solving skills,
  • egocentricity (lacking concern for others' well-being), and
  • values (caring only about oneself).20

This antisocial group of drivers is prone to hostile aggression in and out of their vehicles. Antisocial drivers have high rates of accidents and violations and are many times more likely than the general driving population to have criminal histories.21

Retaliation and revenge are common motives for antisocial drivers who feel disrespected, slighted, infringed-upon, or endangered. This same motive is common in domestic violence, gang violence, theft, and arson.22 Seemingly trivial events such as perceived insults to drivers' self-image or safety most often provoke driving anger. These triggering events tap into a deep well of anger already present in the antisocial driver.

Triggering incidents can include frustrations such as slow, hesitant, or distracted drivers; scares such as near-collisions; offensive behaviors such as rude gestures; and territorial encroachments such as competing for a parking space or failure to yield.23 These acts are not intrinsically aggression-inducing; it is the way a person interprets them and how the person reacts to that interpretation that causes the acts to trigger aggression.24

The second group of aggressive drivers appears prone to socially approved forms of aggression such as competition, which can easily be translated into aggressive driving behaviors. Competitive drivers dislike being passed, enjoy the thrill of speeding, and lack the internal controls to override their competitiveness on the road. Research has shown that both the antisocial and the competitive drivers have significantly more accidents and traffic violations than the general driving public.25

Environmental Conditions

A tendency toward aggression or competitiveness is not sufficient to cause aggressive driving. Environmental, situational, or cultural factors must come into play before someone with such tendencies will be triggered to drive aggressively.

The car's and the road's physical environment can either facilitate or inhibit the expression of aggression while driving. Manipulating environmental conditions can inhibit antisocial and competitive drivers from driving aggressively.

The lack of negative reinforcement (citations) for aggressive driving can also contribute to a driver's likelihood to engage in it. Given the high number of aggressive driving actions and the relatively low number of police officers, the probability of officers' detecting any particular aggressive driving action is rather low.26

Street design can facilitate or inhibit speeding. For example, drivers are likely to speed on wide streets with long, straight stretches.27 Conversely, traffic-calming devices compel drivers to slow down and exercise skill and attention to the road.

† See Problem-Specific Guide No. 3, Speeding in Residential Areas, 2nd Edition, for further information.

Road conditions can increase driver frustration. Bottlenecks, lack of signs indicating the source of unexpected congestion, short green-light intervals, confusing intersections (such as roundabouts), and stretches of uncoordinated traffic lights can trigger aggression.

The social environment also influences driving behavior. Driving is a social activity, and good driving depends on accurate interpretation of social cues, without which drivers are unable to judge what others are likely to do. Antisocial drivers may be unable to accurately anticipate others' moves on the road.

Paradoxically, while driving is a social activity, drivers are isolated from each other. This isolation lessens the impact of cultural norms that prevent uncivil behavior in other social settings.28 Anonymity is the most significant social factor mediating aggressive driving. A driver in a convertible is more likely to feel constrained by social conventions concerning driving behavior than is a driver in an enclosed vehicle with darkly tinted windows.

Situational Factors

Technologies such as mobile phones and e-mail devices have combined with economic pressures to compress many drivers' conception of time, creating intense pressure to make every minute productive. Commuting time, for many drivers, is the last frontier of unexploited time, and the perception that commuting time is lost or wasted time contributes to aggressive efforts to shorten commutes.29 Time pressure or urgency to achieve a driving goal—such as getting to work or home quickly—combines with frustrating factors such as congestion to trigger aggression in antisocial and competitive drivers.30

There is a wide variety of situational variables that can create or promote situational aggression. For example, heat, noise, or other annoying environmental conditions can make drivers irritable and increase the likelihood that a driver will resort to violence when feeling irritated or threatened on the road.31 These conditions can goad drivers who tend to have aggression issues toward violent responses to provocative events.32

The most significant triggering events for road rage are relatively minor. They include aggressive tailgating (62% of cases), headlight flashing (60% of cases), deliberately obstructing other vehicles (21% of cases), and verbally abusing other drivers (16% of cases).33 In short, aggressive driving begets aggressive driving.

Antisocial and competitive drivers don't commit all aggressive driving acts. Ordinary people in extreme situations, including impaired, stressed, and time-pressured drivers, commit some of them.

There is significant overlap between aggressive and violent drivers and their victims. One study found that road rage offenders were more than five times as likely as the general population to have been past victims of a road rage incident.34 Vigilantism constitutes a common form of retaliatory road rage, where an otherwise responsible driver decides to teach an aggressive driver a lesson by returning the aggression.

In the absence of intensive enforcement of driving laws, victims of aggressive driving sometimes dangerously overreact. Drivers who would express their frustration in less harmful ways in other situations find they have no outlet for expressing anger while driving except by engaging in aggressive driving themselves. It is equally difficult for drivers who frustrate or inconvenience others—intentionally or not—to communicate remorse while driving, which, if they could, might well defuse other drivers' aggression.35

One common aggressive driving trigger does not even occur on the road. Parking rage can arise in busy parking lots or those with cramped spaces. Parking tends to trigger territorial and competitive behavior, which can lead to confrontations.36 Anecdotal evidence indicates that the general driving public is most likely to engage in aggressive driving in parking lots.37

Cultural Factors

Culture influences aggressive behavior by shaping how the aggressor interprets triggering events and by influencing whether the aggressor believes a violent response is culturally acceptable in a given situation. To the extent the culture values convenience, individuality over the common good, primacy of cars over bicycles, fast-paced lifestyles, and competition, it promotes aggressive driving.

Some researchers have characterized American culture as contentious, argumentative, and disrespectful,38 and the American media as portraying aggressive driving in a positive light, thereby creating aggressive role models. Risky-driver role models create cultural norms accepting of dangerous and threatening driving behavior.39 Currently, mainstream society does not stigmatize vehicle crimes in the same way as other crimes. Popular media portray aggressive driving as cool, thereby implying social approval, especially to young drivers.

Multiple Causes

While each of the above factors contributes to aggressive driving, none alone explains it. A complex dynamic operates whereby individual traits, situational circumstances, car- and road-related factors, and cultural influences all interrelate to build up to aggressive action or excessive risk-taking while driving. Sitting in traffic on a very hot day with no air-conditioning might be irritating, for example, but in the absence of a triggering event that taps into an antisocial outlook or competitive instinct, aggressive acts are unlikely to occur. Being cut off in traffic is a potential trigger, but without latent aggression and a stressful or irritating environment, aggressive driving is again unlikely to occur.