We know aggressive driving kills. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 29,000 American drivers die each in car accidents tied to aggressive driving.
What's more elusive, though, are the reasons why some people drive more aggressively than others. A study by a professor at Temple University's Fox School of Business may offer some answers.
Your car and your identity
According to the study, “Aggressive Driving: A Consumption Experience,” drivers who view their vehicles as extensions of themselves have stronger aggressive tendencies behind the wheel. Ayalla Ruvio, the study’s author and an assistant professor of marketing at Temple, says her research suggests a previously unexplored connection between the way people view their cars and their behavior on the road.
“We already knew through past studies that people associate their cars with self-identity,” Ruvio says. “What I wanted to know was whether that made them behave more aggressively or lowered their aggression on the road.”
Ruvio, whose research over the years has focused on the way consumers use possessions to protect self-identity and influence behavior, describes her study as a “holistic” look at the influences of conduct behind the wheel. Dividing her research into two parts, Ruvio first studied personality, attitudes and values based on surveys of 134 men and women with an average age of 23. A second study of 298 people added factors such as attraction to risk, impulsiveness, driving as a "hedonistic activity” and perceptions about time pressure.
“What we found is that when you see your car as an extension of yourself, that perception is more likely going to make you as a driver perceive any behavior that might threaten your car as a threat to your own identity,” Ruvio says. “So let’s say I cut you off. Maybe I didn’t mean to. Maybe I didn’t even notice you. But you will perceive it as a personal attack because the car is you.”
Reflection and aggression
To explain this concept more thoroughly, Ruvio likes to use other analogies. For instance, she says, when a father looks at his child, he often sees an extension of himself. The child's accomplishments are his father’s accomplishments. The child's suffering is his father’s suffering.
“If you look at your car and see a reflection of your identity, that says something about you,” Ruvio says.
Another example comes from the world of professional sports. Some fans of particular teams, she says, live and die with every game. Each time the team loses, the players are hurting these fans personally. Every time they win, the fans have scored a personal achievement.
“You can take this extension of the self concept and apply it to almost every aspect of life,” Ruvio says. “It’s when that relationship gets magnified to unreasonable proportions that aggression kicks in.”
Of course, aggressive driving can lead to crashing into other cars, running red lights and other bad behavior on the road. In turn, that bad behavior can boost your auto insurance premiums. Therefore, keeping your aggression in check can save you money.
Other key findings
Additional conclusions from Ruvio's study include:
• People who perceive their cars as reflections of their self-identity are more likely to break traffic laws.
• Aggressive driving tendencies increase the more someone places importance on his or her possessions.
• People with compulsive tendencies are more likely to drive aggressively and disregard possible consequences.
• Young people are particularly susceptible to aggressive driving. “They are just starting their lives,” Ruvio says. “They don’t have an achievement record yet. They don’t own a house. The car is their most obvious way to show off as an extension of their personality.”
Burning 'emotional fuel'
As a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii, Leon "Dr. Driving" James has studied the causes of aggressive behavior behind the wheel for more than 20 years. He knows that drivers often have complex perceptions of their cars, observing everything from people who name their vehicles to people who talk or even pray to their cars.
However, James thinks these perceptions have little influence over the way people drive, which makes him a bit skeptical about whether Ruvio’s research has any practical implications on the road.
“The way people drive has to do with their general mental and emotional state," James says. “It’s the burning of this emotional fuel that determines the way someone drives, and I don’t know that this study will have much of an impact on that.”
'Fortress on wheels'
Timothy Dimoff, a former police detective who's an expert on “life rage,” says Ruvio’s study confirms only some of the psychological factors of road rage that he’s been studying for years.
“I always thought people looked at their car as an extension of themselves, but I also think they look at it as a fortress on wheels,” Dimoff says. “It’s movable, it’s enclosed, and I think a lot of people who would normally not say or do something confrontational to a person standing near them will do it with their car.”
It’s basic human nature, Dimoff says, to identify with your possessions -- your house, your clothes, your cellphone. The car, however, is perhaps the most significant identifier, he says.
Solutions to aggressive driving?
Like James, road rage expert and clinical psychologist Arnold Nerenberg questions the value of Ruvio's study.
“Coming up with this psychological dimension is intellectually fascinating, but it doesn’t help anybody in a pragmatic sense,” Nerenberg says. “I already have the cure.”
Nerenberg, who has given numerous seminars on road rage for companies like UPS and Qualcomm, says the most effective way to lessen aggressive tendencies starts with simple questions he asks his audiences: Do you want to turn the power over to other people on the road? Do you want to give them the power to make you into a “raving lunatic"? If the answer is no (as it most often is), then Nerenberg gives people the following mantra: "I refuse to let you control my anger."
Dimoff has a similar approach. First and foremost, he says, a driver can’t get caught up in the perception that other drivers on the road are personally threatening his or her identity and safety.
“Once you get caught up in that, it quickly goes from aggressive driving to competing with negative encounters on the road,” Dimoff says. “Then you get sucked in and things get out of hand.”
Ruvio says her study certainly isn’t going to eliminate aggressive driving. (“If you’re just an aggressive person, I can’t really help you,” she says.) However, she hopes it will raise awareness of the negative effect that possessions — and the perception of those possessions — can have on everyone’s safety.
“When we are younger, we are told over and over about the need to share, to be tolerant, to be accepting,” Ruvio says. “So if we use that technique in more mature people and send home the message over and over again that the car is not who you are, that it’s a vehicle, a machine, we can start to change this trend.”