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Three-Step Driver Self-Improvement Program


by Dr. Leon James

Objective Self-Assessment for Drivers

Road rage and aggressive driving exist on a single behavior continuum. Aggressive driving is not solely how someone operates a vehicle; it is also a mental state, a readiness to interpret the acts of others in a hostile way and a desire to respond in kind. In the mental state of aggressive driving we impulsively take more risks and stay on the verge of angry exchanges throughout the trip. At the extreme end of the aggressive driving spectrum, road rage breaks out and assault and battery occur. Many are surprised to learn that the majority of drivers experience intense emotions in traffic that put them at risk of expressing road rage. Research with hundreds of drivers led us to formulate a three-step program to help drivers develop better emotional fitness on the road. The first step (A) is to Acknowledge that every driver, including you, needs traffic emotions education. The second step (W) is to act as a Witness to your actual behavior while driving, systematically observing your thoughts, feelings and actions to identify the type and degree of aggressive driving and road rage you practice. The third step (M) is to Modify the behaviors you want to change, one thing at a time, continuing this process throughout your career as a driver. The three-step program must be continuously recycled. There are thousands of habits and skills to manage as a driver, including constantly developing new ones. Each habit or skill must be separately acknowledged, witnessed, and modified or improved.

The goal of self-assessment is to identify problematic tendencies and habits that either produce emotional rage in the self or provoke it in others. The symptoms of road rage may be obvious to everyone except to the road rager. Part of the problem of road rage is that though most feel it, few admit it. The basis for an objective self-assessment is the ability to see yourself as others see you. For instance, listen to yourself when you tell driving stories. Which party is always blamed for a collision--you or the other motorist? Who is denigrated? There's a strong tendency to adopt a self-serving bias when we represent ourselves as victimized drivers, so it's always the other motorist who started it or is at fault. But what about our own contribution? A self-serving bias clouds our understanding of why we get angry, so it can appear to aggressors that they are the victims, while true victims are seen as victimizers. This inverted view reflects a lack of objectivity and makes for dramatic stories of retaliation.

The exercise in the following section engages drivers in comparing their own estimation of their driving skills with the perspectives of their passengers.

Exercise: Assessing Myself as a Driver

Step 1: Think about your driving over the past few weeks. Make a list of your best traits and another list of your worst traits as a driver.

My Best Driving Traits

According to Myself

My Worst Driver Traits

According to Myself















Step 2: Talk to people who have driven with you recently. Ask them to tell you what they consider to be your best and worst qualities as a driver. Record the passengers' comments exactly as they were intended without re-interpreting, sugar-coating, exaggerating, etc. It's useful to repeat this step with several passengers to get a variety of perspectives on your driving personality.

My Best Driving Traits

According to My Passenger

My Worst Driving Traits

According to My Passenger















Step 3: Compare your lists of best and worst driving behavior with those of your passenger(s). Identify the areas of the greatest difference in perception. What are your worst traits according to your passenger(s)?


Developing emotional intelligence as a driver begins by acknowledging that you need a better understanding of the road rage syndrome. We're born into a car culture where rushing, traffic congestion, noise, fumes and irate drivers are the norm. Though our society loves cars, we don't necessarily love the motorists who drive them. This older man's acknowledgment statement reveals the common threads of discord among drivers:

I acknowledge that:

1.                  I'm not in full control of my emotions all of the time. That is dangerous.

2.                  I harbor resentment against some drivers who tick me off. This is not how I want to be.

3.                  I become hostile when a passenger tells me what to do. This is unfriendly.

4.                  I don't mind threatening pedestrians with my vehicle if they're too slow to move. This is illegal and uncivilized.

5.                  I often fantasize I have a gun and I am spraying bullets. This is inhuman.

6.                  I often have violent impulses like running a car off the road. This is horrific.

The act of acknowledging is the most difficult step in changing undesirable habits. But, you cannot change a single habit without first acknowledging that what you're doing is not healthy and that you need to quit. Driving consists of thousands of little habits that are candidates for change:

        habits of feeling a certain way when something happens--our traffic emotions and attitudes

        habits of thinking a certain way about a certain event or person--our emotional intelligence as a driver

        habits of operating the vehicle--our automatic habits of alertness and vehicle manipulation.

These driving habits were acquired subconsciously and are maintained without awareness. It's typical to deny it when a terrified passenger complains that you're taking great risks or that you made a mistake. Most people rate themselves as an 8, 9 or 10 on a 10-point Driving Excellence Scale even though in the same survey, 75 percent confess to aggressive driving such as regularly swearing at others, habitual speeding, or changing lanes without signaling.1 Since these behaviors do not contribute to driving excellence, this is evidence of denial on a mass scale! In addition, it is difficult to change ingrained driving habits established and practiced since childhood. Nevertheless, change is feasible and self-help programs often begin with this step: I acknowledge that I've got a problem I need to fix.

It's absolutely essential that formal acknowledgment be made in each of the three areas of the driver's habits: emotions, thoughts, and overt actions. If you merely focus on overt behavior (e.g., speeding, not signaling, tailgating), you may be puzzled as to why it's so hard to follow through on good resolutions. No matter how hard you try, you end up speeding, switching lanes without signaling, circumventing road work barriers, or chasing someone down. Why are you speeding, yelling, or not signaling? We need to face the possibilities: Perhaps I'm impatient. Perhaps I'm driving selfishly, not caring. Perhaps I'm being cynical, assuming everybody is just out to get ahead. Perhaps I'm a vigilante at heart and enjoy punishing wrongdoers. The point is that uncovering and acknowledging our driver character traits provide the information necessary to begin to implement successful self-directed changes.

Finally, acknowledging cannot be accomplished by a general resolution such as "I promise to improve" or "I should be more careful" or "I'm going to be less aggressive." You need to be as specific as possible about which particular attitude, intention, feeling, belief, words, or particular act of the eyes, face, hands, foot, or mouth that you need to modify. For example, "I will avoid looking directly at another driver when I think the person is doing wrong." Systematic self-witnessing is necessary to achieve the necessary level of specificity about one's behaviors.


Witnessing or self-witnessing follows acknowledging. Self-observation or self-monitoring are equivalent terms for this step. Some overt acts of motorists are visible and measurable by third parties or instruments:

        Vehicle speed

        Following distance

        Blood alcohol level (BAC level)

        Running through red

        Crossing a double line

        Failure to yield

        Circumventing road work barriers

        Insulting or threatening gestures



Some of the small movements we perform while driving are not easily visible to others but can be measured with sensing equipment:

        Amount of pressure applied to the brake pedal

        How hard we grip the steering wheel

        How we contract the abdomen under stress

        Rate of shallow breathing

        Moving the head due to pain

        Slight variations in how we maneuver around corners

        Slight variations in how fast we approach traffic signals or pedestrian crossings

        Mutterings about traffic and drivers

        Bobbing of the head of a sleepy driver about to fall asleep at the wheel


But no measuring instrument can detect what's going on in our thoughts and feelings, yet they determine our overt actions. This crucial information is available only through self-witnessing.

Self-witnessing is the act of verbalizing thoughts and feelings during an activity in order to create a play-by-play description of what's going on. In other words, part of the self acts as a witness and thinks aloud what the other part is doing, thinking, and feeling. Verbalizing out loud what's in the mind makes it possible to capture material from thinking and feeling operations and put this into long term memory so that one can reflect on it later. The ability to observe and verbalize our thoughts sets us apart from animals. Our awareness can be split into the doer and the watcher, the thinker and the observer, or the actor and the audience. Charles Cooley named this ability the "looking glass self," without which we lack the ability to change ourselves or manage our growth.2

We encourage drivers to tape record themselves while driving, to speak their thoughts aloud to capture their natural stream of consciousness. The play-by-play must be done from the perspective of a "driving-witness" whose job is to bring out the events that are relevant to driving. The witness uses the language of description that's appropriate to particular driving events to gain self-knowledge:

        What is my mood or emotional state?

        Where am I looking?

        What am I noticing?

        How do I react to that?

        What kinds of things do I fantasize?

        What do I think or say to myself?

        What do I intend to do now?


Actually, it's not necessary to tape record yourself because merely pretending there is a recorder works also. Objective driver awareness increases by the mere act of verbalizing the thoughts and emotions behind the wheel, since it allows you to 'listen in,' to be mentally online, as it were. When we began our research about three decades ago, this kind of private or inner information was not available in the professional literature on driving behavior. "Retrospective reports" or questionnaires from debriefing sessions after a trip were available, but recollections of events are often inaccurate and distorted. Our self-witnessing research was the first to produce information on the thoughts and emotions of drivers behind the wheel.3

Self-witnessing reveals your driving personality, the "automatic self" who actually does most of the driving through the cluster of habits you acquired over the years. One of the first things to notice is that the eyes, hands, and legs seem to operate on their own. This is ordinarily good because there isn't enough time to 'think things through' during many routine tasks in driving. In a pack of cars traveling at 55 mph or more, with a distance of one car length between them, you have a mere fraction of a second to apply the brakes when the car ahead of you does. Your leg automatically does the work in the split second that your eyes detect the red brake lights ahead. The automatic driving self accomplishes a lot, but you still have to remain alert. Your eyes can't safely wander off to fool with a cellular phone or the tape deck. Safe driving is a combination of automatic reflexes and alert monitoring of events.

Self-monitoring of these micro-actions during driving is a proven method for identifying errors in automatic habits and skills. Equally important is witnessing our thinking and feeling behind the wheel. For most drivers mental acts of road rage occur routinely, though they may be unaware of the frequency and intensity before they systematically observe themselves in traffic. To accomplish this, it's necessary to assume the role of an observer and to act as a witness to yourself as a driver to find out how often you entertain critical, judgmental or derogatory thoughts about other drivers, passengers, cyclists, or pedestrians. Use a convenient way to keep track, such as:

        Thinking out loud into a tape recorder or video camera while you drive

        Putting a coin or bead in a cup for each instance, or using a counter device

        Having a passenger count for you

        Dictating notes to a passenger

        Making notes in your Driving Diary or Log after arriving at the destination

After keeping track for a few trips, listen to the recordings or review your notes and add up all of the instances of negative feelings, thoughts and actions. This is your "baseline list" or benchmark. As you continue to witness yourself behind the wheel in future trips, compare the changes over time. Sometimes merely becoming more aware of a specific behavior allows you to modify it at will. But often this fails, so you need more powerful methods.

Because emotions and intentions precede overt driving acts and constrain them, it's important to focus on your "inner driver" or the subconscious mind, to become aware of these precipitating thoughts and feelings.

Examples of negative events to witness:

        Feeling claustrophobic in traffic

        Feeling insecurity behind the wheel

        Often feeling rushed and time pressured, unable to drive calmly

        Taking excessive risks

        Criticizing, insulting, name-calling, denigrating or ridiculing others

        Complaining, feeling indignant, and disapproving of others

        Feeling happy about another's mishap or trouble

        Hating the road and feeling alienated from other drivers

        Stressing over police

        Fantasizing acts of violence or vengeance

        Shouting, gesturing, or shaking the head

        Provoking, threatening, retaliating, or punishing

        Using the vehicle to pressure, threaten, or attack


Examples of positive events to witness:

        Enjoying the idea and the feeling of showing kindness to another driver

        Being ready to return a favor or kindness

        Feeling good when someone waves thank you, feeling connected to the human family

        Feeling satisfied with precision driving (e.g., going around a turn being careful not to roll over the double line)

        Enjoying facilitating the progress of all not just our own

        Enjoying the drive, despite the congestion

        Driving connected, feeling part of the traffic flow and the highway community

        Feeling appreciative when spotting a patrol car and viewing it as protection

        Thinking compassionate or forgiving thoughts about another driver's mistakes or flaws

        Feeling responsible for everyone's safety


Checklist: Witnessing Your Aggressive Driving

Objective self-assessment is a skill that can be acquired with practice. The three behavior zones to observe are emotions, thoughts, and actions. This checklist of examples helps you focus on specific elements of your driving style, but in order to be objective you must observe yourself actually performing the actions, thinking the thoughts, and feeling the emotions. The purpose of the checklist is to alert you to the areas of the driving personality to be witnessed. The items represent common aggressive behaviors from the self-witnessing reports of many drivers. Since they are cultural norms, it's likely that we all have them to some extent.

Remember, it's one thing to check items but it's critical to actually observe them as they happen in driving. Experience proves that we can't wish these habits away with resolutions or declarations. It's necessary to begin by consciously observing them as they're happening. As a practical strategy, select one or two items to observe on each trip. Don't try to take on too many at once because you will be defeated. Use the checklist to mark when you've observed each item. It helps to keep notes on the circumstances during which the emotion, thought, or act occurred.


1.         ____ Getting angry when forced to brake by another motorist

2.         ____ Feeling insulted and furious when a driver revs the engine in passing

3.         ____ Feeling hostile when your progress is impeded by congestion

4.         ____ Being suspicious when a driver doesn't let you change lanes

5.         ____ Feeling justified in retaliating when another driver insults you

6.         ____ Enjoying thoughts of revenge and torture

7.         ____ Enjoying the role of being mean behind the wheel

8.         ____ Feeling satisfaction when expressing hostility against other drivers

9.      ____ Fantasizing racing other road warriors

10.  ____ Enjoying stereotyping and ridiculing certain drivers

11.  ____ Constantly feeling like rushing, even when you're not late

12.  ____ Striving to get ahead of every car

13.  ____ Being pleased when getting away with breaking traffic laws

14.  ____ Enjoying the feeling of risk or danger when moving fast

15.  ____ Other: _____________________________________________

16.  ____ Other: _____________________________________________


1.      ____ Justifying that it's all right to reject the law that every lane change must be signaled

2.      ____ Thinking that it's up to you to choose which stop signs should be obeyed

3.      ____ Thinking that there is no need for speed limits

4.      ____ Being ignorant of safety rules and principles (e.g., who has the right of way)

5.      ____ Thinking that it's not necessary to figure out the route before leaving, when it is

6.      ____ Not leaving early enough, thinking you can make up time by driving faster

7.      ____ Thinking that some drivers are fools, air heads, rejects, etc.

8.      ____ Thinking that other drivers are out to get you

9.      ____ Believing that passengers have fewer rights than drivers

10.  ____ Thinking you can handle drinking and driving due to your special ability to hold your liquor

11.  ____ Thinking that you can use in-car communication systems safely without having to train yourself

12.  ____ Believing that pedestrians shouldn't have the right of way when jaywalking

13.  ____ Believing it's o.k. not to wear seat belts since you probably won't need it

14.  ____ Thinking it's best to get ahead of others even if you cause them to slow down

15.  ____ Other: _____________________________________________

16.  ____ Other: _____________________________________________


1.      ____ Not signaling when required by law

2.      ____ Lane hopping to get ahead rather than going with the flow

3.      ____ Following too close for the speed

4.      ____ Gap-closing to prevent someone from entering your lane

5.      ____ Turning right from the middle or left lane

6.      ____ Blocking the passing lane, not moving over as soon as possible

7.      ____ Speeding faster than the flow of traffic

8.      ____ Shining high beams to annoy a driver

9.      ____ Honking to protest something, when it's not an emergency

10.  ____ Gesturing insultingly at another driver

11.  ____ Speeding up suddenly to make it through a yellow light

12.  ____ Making rolling stops when a full stop is required

13.  ____ Threatening pedestrians by approaching them fast

14.  ____ Illegally parking in a marked handicap stall

15.  ____ Parking or double parking where it's illegal

16.  ____ Playing the radio loud enough to be heard by other drivers

17.  ____ Taking a parking space unfairly or opportunistically

18.  ____ Driving under the influence of alcohol or medication

19.  ____ Bad mouthing other drivers when kids are in the vehicle

20.  ____ Ignoring the comfort of passengers or verbally assaulting them when they complain about your driving

21.  ____ Failure to yield

22.  ____ Other: _____________________________________________

23.  ____ Other: _____________________________________________


There are some things that don't change simply because you want them to. Modifying your driving personality can be an overwhelming task unless it is broken into small steps, working on one target behavior at a time. Permanently changing lifelong driving habits requires systematically mapping your emotions, thoughts, and deeds behind the wheel. Drivers are more successful in their self-retraining efforts when they focus on one specific habit at a time, for example:

        Leaving home 15 minutes earlier than usual (actions)

        Increasing the following distance (actions)

        Signaling sooner before changing lanes (actions)

        Driving less frequently in the passing lanes (actions)

        Reducing cruising speed by 5 to 10 mph (actions)

        Contradicting yourself each time you think that some drivers are fools, air heads, etc. (thoughts)

        Reinforcing the idea that your passengers have their rights (thoughts)

        Repeating to yourself that pedestrians always have the right of way, even when jaywalking (thoughts)

        Contradicting your belief that it's o.k. not to wear seat belts because you probably won't need it (thoughts)

        Avoiding getting angry when forced to brake by another motorist (emotions)

        Avoiding feeling hostile when your progress is impeded by congestion (emotions)

        Avoiding retaliation when another driver insults you (emotions)

        Not letting yourself enjoy thoughts of revenge and torture (emotions)

One young male driver drew up a plan to modify five specific target behaviors, one per trip, then recycled this strategy for as many weeks as necessary to automate the new behaviors:

        Mostly stay in the right lane rather than the left (action)

        Leave a minimum of four car lengths when traveling in a fast moving pack, rather than the usual two (action)

        When you see pedestrians, repeat to yourself they always have the right of way (thoughts)

        Avoid looking at a driver who is mad or indignant, reminding yourself it's best to stay out of fights (action and thoughts)

        Not letting myself slide into a bad mood when traffic gets congested (emotions)

The practice of witnessing your actions, thoughts, and feelings while driving creates objective self-knowledge. You become a spectator to your own driving personality traits, seeing yourself as an impartial observer might see you. This is objectivity. The driver above wrote at the start of his self-modification project:

I find it hard to judge my driving because I feel I'm a good driver. For the sake of objectivity, I'm going to break the problem down into several categories such as alertness, speed, safety, driving record, decisiveness, and interaction style. After looking at all these areas, I'll be able to make a prognosis about what I need to do to make my driving better.

Objective self-assessment demands a detailed inventory of real life in real traffic, the kind of person you actually are, your emotions, judgments, and actions, observed over time, under a variety of road conditions. You can't rely on your accident record, on your memory, on reputation, or on one or two quick observations. At the start of his driving personality makeover program, this driver considered himself to be a safe driver and named the strategies he practices. At the same time he recognized that he had a speeding problem. He was faced with having to reconcile these conflicting beliefs about himself: "I'm a good driver" and "I'm a speeder."

Overhauling automated and subconscious driving habits is not only a smart thing to do, it gives you a healthy sense of competence and self-confidence. The effort you make in driver self-improvement will extend your effectiveness in other daily situations in the workplace and the family. However, attempts to modify unwanted behavior often encounter resistance.

Based on Chapter 6 of Road Rage and Aggressive Driving

See also: Surveys and Tests of Aggressive Driving

See also: Articles on Aggressive Driving, Road Rage, and Other Topics

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