Violence and Driving--A Mental Health Issue
A Crisis in Community Mental Health

Dr. Leon James
Department of Psychology
University of Hawaii
June, 1987

Written for Innercom -- Newsletter of the Mental Health Association in Hawaii

The current rash of shootings on the highways of Los Angeles may be the tip of the iceberg in the growing danger of traffic violence. The shootings, the rammings, the fist fights are only the most visible symptoms of an underlying mental health problem in the driving population.
There are 180 million licensed drivers in the U.S. who are involved in 4 million serious injuries (up to 5 million in the 1990s!), and 45,000 fatalities a year. The average driver is now highly likely to get into one serious accident every 15 years. And now a new dangerous factor has arisen in the alarming increase in the incidence of overt violence among drivers. Can it happen here?

What Causes Traffic Violence?

The experience of driving daily to and from work can be the most stressful part of a person's day. I wanted to get an accurate picture of what it's like to drive in traffic from the subjective point of view of the driver's own private world of thoughts and feelings. I tape recorded myself while driving across the Pali to and from campus. I kept talking about my impressions, my thoughts, my reactions, my feelings. When I later listened to the tapes I was astounded. They were full of anti-social feelings, fantasies of violence, and self-deprication. What was wrong with me?
I shared my findings with undergraduate students in my Social Psychology course and many of them decided to see for themselves. Their findings on themselves corroborate mine. Their reports show that they regularly experience feelings and thoughts of violence when driving.

It is likely that most if not all drivers regularly experience exchanges with other drivers that are upsetting, denigrating, and aggressive. We feel badly treated by other drivers and we in turn treat them badly. We yell at them, we give them the 'stink-eye,' we threaten them by tailgating, we close ranks in our lane so as to prevent anyone from changing lanes. Even worse, mentally we insult them and in our fantasy we ram them, torture them, ridicule them, even kill them. What causes these horrifying impulses? How can we protect the community from the danger that these feelings might suddenly break out into the open in acts of insanity and violence?

My experience with traffic psychology since 1980 has identified two principal causes of traffic violence. One may be called the comic strip mentality of drivers, and the other is their lack of moral training.


Comic Strip Driver Mentality

Imagine a comic strip or cartoon featuring driver behavior. Picture to yourself what the characters with their cars are doing and mentally fill in the balloons with their verbal expressions. I believe you'll have a fairly accurate picture of what is happening in reality. Drivers symbolize exchanges with other drivers using a variety of metaphors of competitiveness, of victory and defeat. The attitude and language of competition in traffic transform ordinary activities like overtaking and changing lanes into provocation and threat accompanied by feelings of anger and vengeance. Each of us must take steps to modify our self-talk while driving. First note that you are doing it, that you talk or think to yourself in terms of the role of a comic book character on driver behavior. Note the sentences you say to yourself. Note the fantasies you allow yourself, even if for only a second or two. Then force yourself to stop. Substitute positive dramatizations for the negative ones. Imagine yourself as a wise and caring driver, prudent and polite, forgiving, and willing to give up being first, or even second in any line.


Need for Better Moral Training

Psychologists studying the development of morality in children and adults have found various natural stages. Young children avoid doing the wrong thing by willingly obeying the orders of parents and authority figures. This is the stage of innocence. As they get older children are less willing to merely obey and require external surveillance with the threat of physical punishment. Adolescents and young adults begin to be governed less and less by physical threat and more and more by the threat of social disapproval. In maturity and old age, we begin to be governed more and more by inner standards of right and wrong. This is the deepest stage of moral development when we freely choose the right and the good out of a sense of caring and love.
True, frustration in traffic kindles aggressive impulses, but what is crucial is how we respond to these impulses. I believe that an inner sense of morality is required to be able to resist antisocial feelings and manage our comic book mentality as drivers. Morality and altruism are community resources. We can tap them with the right approach and they can deliver us from our current dangerous national traffic situation. Because morality involves deep feelings of compliance to rules or commandments, I believe that we need to start driver education in kindergarten. School children are after all one of the heaviest users of our traffic lanes as pedestrians, as bicycle riders, and as passengers in busses and cars. They need to be formally taught what should be the morality of road user behavior.


Six Ways to Avoid Traffic Violence

When I discovered my comic book driver mentality I became motivated to modify my behavior on the road. I became a reformed driver. Here are the 6 methods that worked for me and that I recommend to everyone.

1. I am committed to obeying all traffic signs and regulations. I keep track of my speed and I am committed to making a full stop at all stop signs, forcing myself to wait for "the dip" before taking my foot off the brake.

2. I remind myself regularly to drive as if I'm being videotaped on a live TV show with the camera and mike right in my car. No cussing, no yelling, no threatening gestures. All of that would be too embarrassing on the national network. So I stay well- behaved.

3. I keep alive the conviction that driver errors be considered from a moral and spiritual point of view. Is breaking the speed limit immoral? Isn't it a sin to injure someone as a result of my impatience? Is threatening a pedestrian with my car an evil act? Isn't drunk driving a crime against humanity?

4. I use self-regulatory sentences to defuse and dedramatize driver exchanges in traffic. If I hear myself denigrate someone ("Stupid driver! Why don't you watch it."), I immediately use counter-propaganda sentences such as, "Come on, be nice. Give the man a break." Or if I think that someone is tailgating me and out to get me, I tell myself, "Take it easy. He probably isn't even aware he's following too close" or, "He's probably in a hurry. Maybe I can pull over to let him pass."

5. I keep myself knowledgeable on the subject of driving. The public and university libraries have a tremendous amount of books and magazines on driver behavior, accident statistics, traffic safety education, and so on. My students report that they are very impressed and affected by this information. It forces them to re-appraise the situation and their contributory role in it.

6. I let my wife help me. Until I became a reformed driver I responded defensively and aggressively whenever my wife commented on one of my dangerous or inappropriate actions. For her to say anything at all meant a fight. Now however I listen to her. My driving and our relationship has immensely improved as a result.


National Drive the Limit Day

Traffic violence is likely to increase nationally. Only a large scale community effort can prevent it from erupting into tragedy all over our cities. To adequately cope with this crisis we need to find ways of rekindling people's morality and altruism on the road. We also need to modify the comic book driver mentality that fosters antisocial fantasies. Newspapers and radio talk shows can play an important role in keeping the issue alive and in encouraging people to become reformed drivers. Respect for traffic signs is the beginning of all driver wisdom. We ought to have a National Drive the Limit Day to stimulate community interest and effort. Hawaii can play a significant educative role in the country by taking advantage of the opportunity offered by the millions of tourists every year who visit our paradise. Various community- based driver re-education programs could be offered in an entertaining and worthwhile way that emphasize the morality and psychology of driver behavior.

Back to Articles