In my last blog for the NRSPP I posed the question: “What is it going to be like when restrictions ease and we re-enter the workforce – when we are all back on the roads?”
Two years on from COVID lockdowns we have the answer. We seem to be back to “normal” with the same driving frustrations and behaviours we had before the pandemic. Drivers in Australia report that other road users are just as, if not more, aggressive as before (Stephen et al., 2022); although this differs across Countries. Data from US suggests an increase in aggression (Dong et al., 2022) while decreases have been noted in Europe (Fafoutellis). It is possible that perceived increases in aggression may be down to the increase since, rather than before, lockdowns. This remains an area of interest for me and I’m always keen to hear the thoughts about this from people who spend a lot of time on the road.
Do you think we are back to our pre-covid normal now?
One thing that is clear, is that we may have more reasons to be aggressive.
We drive as we feel. Stressed, tired or frustrated people more readily become angry or aggressive drivers. This is because we are more likely to interpret the behaviour of other drivers as antagonistic and feel safe retaliating when angry. We are also more likely to be aggressive when we place a greater value on time, such as when in peak hour traffic (Shinar, 2004). As roads return to their normal traffic volumes; driving times are increasing. This may take some getting used to and have a knock-on effect on our tolerance for delays. So too, COVID related changes to working, schedules or economics may predispose us to being more stressed and less tolerant as a driver. This increases our chances of aggressive reactions.
So are we becoming more aggressive?
I often get asked if drivers are becoming more aggressive. There are contrasting answers to this question. Around 60% of drivers believe that other drivers are becoming more aggressive (Stephens et al., 2022) and all drivers report experiencing aggression from other drivers (Stephens et al., 2023). However, on an individual level, as we age, we tend to find driving less frustrating, and manage those frustrations more effectively; thus the frequency of our aggression decreases. In fact, only 30% of drivers report being more aggressive now than they were some time ago (Stephens et al., 2022). Interestingly, the main factor associated with increased aggression is the perception that other drivers have become more aggressive. Drivers are aggressive because other drivers are.
“I will if you do”
The perceived driving culture has a big effect on how we drive. A culture that accepts aggression may foster more aggression. We recently did a study to understand tailgating behaviour and found this exact phenomenon (Stephens et al., 2023). When drivers tailgate it is seen as an acceptable way to change another driver’s behaviour. The more often this occurs, the more likely the driver is to want to do it again. One way to reduce aggression, is to change attitudes and perceived acceptability within the driving culture.
Reducing aggressive driving
The benefits of positive safety culture in the workplace are well documented; and this extends to a safe driving culture. Another way to encourage reductions in aggressive behaviour is to help drivers avoid points of conflict or support them to have the tools to manage these when they occur. These points of conflict will differ across organisations and may be related to the type of driving required, driving schedules, drop off or pick up interactions, job demands or passengers.
On individual levels there are many things drivers can do when they find themselves in frustrating or angering situations.
Different strategies will work for different drivers, at different times.
Strategies may involve pre-journey planning to avoid busy routes or times or to allow more driving time. When annoyed while driving, avoid ruminating on the incident and refocus attention to safe driving, route re-routing, or play music to help calm yourself.
Rumination increases aggression, forgiveness decreases it (Stephens collard, 2023).
We have also found that many drivers use relaxation techniques such as taking a deep breath to help recentre themselves. Rethinking the situation is among the most beneficial strategies drivers report (Stephens, Newnan 2022; Stephens Collard, 2023). Rethinking the situation can involve personalising the other driver (what if that were my kids, parents or boss?), cutting the other road user some slack or asking yourself if this will really matter in long run. If it won’t, don’t worry about it now.
The key to a successful strategy is that it is practical for you. One of my personal strategies is to think of something funny. I often think about my colleague badly singing “let it be” from Frozen to reduce her anger. It didn’t work for her, but certainly helps me laugh off any feelings of frustration I am feeling.
Dong et al., 2022: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aap.2022.106687
Fafoutellis et al 2022: Investigating the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Eco-driving behavior – ScienceDirect
Stephens et al., (2023): https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S136984782200290X
Stephens, Collard (2023) https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12144-023-04744-5
Stephens, Newnam (2022): https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022437522000998