Colorado State Psychology Professor Begins Road Rage Study; Computer Simulator Tracks Driving Behavior in the Laboratory

A Colorado State University psychology professor will replicate snarled metro Denver traffic and other scenarios to determine whether certain road conditions are likely to provoke road rage more than others.

In a study beginning this month, Professor Jerry Deffenbacher will use animated computer graphics and a mock car equipped with brakes, gas pedal and steering wheel to simulate traffic conditions that spawn road rage in some individuals.

The aim of the study is to gauge which traffic scenarios anger drivers to the point they drive aggressively, yell at other drivers or take risks that expose others to unsafe driving conditions. By knowing what factors are most likely to provoke road rage and what personality types are most conducive to expressing driving anger, Deffenbacher hopes to develop better coping strategies for the road.

"A lot of common sense goes out the window when people have car keys in hand," Deffenbacher said. "We hope this study points out the tendencies of driving anger in some of the most common day-to-day driving conditions. We’re doing in the laboratory what we couldn’t do safely on the road."

The estimated 90 men and women involved in the study will use the computer simulator to "drive" in three scenarios, each about 12 minutes long. The first scenario involves driving on a country road with no traffic and pleasant driving conditions. A second scenario simulates rush-hour traffic on the freeway with heavy congestion and slow speeds–similar to rush-hour traffic in downtown Denver. In the third setting, drivers will have to negotiate a narrow country road behind a slow moving vehicle and oncoming traffic that prevents passing.

Researchers also plan to develop a fourth scenario in which another vehicle cuts off the driver and a fifth that involves stop-and-go downtown traffic and includes other factors such as pedestrians, bicyclists and traffic lights.

The drivers will report on their feelings as they proceed through each scenario. Meanwhile, the computer will record the speed, number of collisions with other cars and other performance measures.

The data will be used to validate some of Deffenbacher’s other studies on personality types most likely to express anger behind the wheel. Past studies showed that high-anger individuals became angry three times more often behind the wheel and were more than twice as likely to display risky and aggressive behavior on the road than low-anger individuals. People were categorized as high- or low-anger individuals after completing a short driving anger questionnaire.

Deffenbacher’s past studies also revealed that high-anger individuals express anger on the road with more intensity than low-anger drivers, and that women express driving anger as frequently as men.

"When driving conditions aren’t stressful, there is no difference between high-anger and low-anger individuals on the road," Deffenbacher said. "However, when high-anger people are provoked, it’s a whole different story. They have a much shorter fuse."

Deffenbacher has several suggestions for drivers who either frequently get angry on the road or who are on the receiving end of road rage. The most fundamental advice is to accept that inappropriate, discourteous and unsafe events can happen to anyone on the road. That acceptance makes drivers more patient when driving conditions are difficult. Drivers also should avoid making eye contact, gestures, faces or yelling at another angry driver, since further provocation can spark intense, sometimes lethal anger in certain individuals. Instead, drivers should disengage from the situation by slowing down or allowing the problem driver to pass.

High-anger individuals also can avoid bouts of road rage by learning a few relaxation techniques. Deffenbacher suggests playing favorite music or audio book tapes as a way to lower anger and prevent negative interactions with other drivers. Drivers also can lower their anger by choosing not to use profanity–which adds fuel to the fire–and concentrating on positive thoughts.

Commuters who frequently get angry about road conditions should also look at their lifestyle for possible reasons–such as always being late. Starting out earlier may prevent an angry episode.

"How we think about other drivers and events on the road can make things go from bad to worse," Deffenbacher said. "A good deal of anger is in one’s head, and that kind of behavior can be changed."