Psychologist Says Driving Is a Team Sport

We may not wear the jerseys and most of us haven't signed multimillion-dollar endorsement contracts, but when we're driving, we're all members of the same team.

That's the philosophy of Dr. Leon James, a psychology professor at the University of Hawaii who has been doing research on the subject of driving psychology for 25 years.

James' research focuses on why some of us scream and curse when stuck in traffic, while others calmly wade through their commute.

"Why does almost everybody, at some point in traffic, expresses negative emotions?" he asks.

Road Rage Nursery

James teaches his students that the negative behavior drivers exhibit on the road is a result of the social norms we pick up as children.

"We call the back seat of the car 'road rage nursery,' " James said. "Because that's when children are exposed to the verbal road rage of their parents."

As a result, he says, children learn that even though aggressive behavior is unacceptable in some places -- like work or school -- it is acceptable when driving a car.

"We drive the way our parents drive and the way television teaches us to drive," said James. "We're trained to drive aggressively. We're trained to be competitive. We're trained to look out for ourselves on the road."

Team Play

James says the key to preventing this kind of behavior is for drivers to stop thinking of themselves as individual competitors, and start thinking of themselves as part of a team.

"It's just like a football game or any kind of game," James explained. "If someone is not a team player -- just looking out for themselves -- that team is not going to do as well."

Being a team player means not only being courteous to other drivers, but giving them the freedom to do what they need to in order to keep traffic flowing.

"If we learn to keep more distance and to allow other people to politely do what they want instead of standing in the way, then all of the traffic is going to start moving faster," said James.

'Acknowledge, Witness, Modify'

To identify and deal with the problem, James has developed a three-step program he calls "A-W-M" -- for Acknowledge, Witness, Modify.

"The person must first acknowledge that they are aggressive. Second they have to witness, in other words they have to observe themselves doing it. And third is to 'modify' the behavior."

According to James, the first step -- a driver acknowledging that he or she acts aggressively -- is possibly the most difficult step.

"People are in denial that they themselves are aggressive," James said. "Most people are not aware that they make mistakes while they drive."

To illustrate just how warped people's perception of themselves can be, James conducts an experiment in which he asks drivers to rate themselves on a scale of one to 10.

"The average is around seven or eight, and many people go to nine or 10," he said. "People grossly exaggerate how good they are and they underestimate all the mistakes they make."

The second step of the program -- "Witness" -- relies on a method of observation James calls "self-witnessing."

"We carry a tape recorder in the car," said James "and then we train ourselves to think aloud. Everything we think we speak aloud."

That information is then analyzed to see what the driver is reacting to and to try and figure out why.

Quality Driving Circles

The final step in James' program is for the driver to modify his or her behavior.

When James testified before a congressional subcommittee in 1997, he proposed a radical solution to the rising tempers of American drivers -- Quality Driving Circles, or QDCs.

"These are small groups of drivers that regularly meet, maybe once every two weeks," he explained. "They help each other do these A-W-Ns -- driving self-improvement programs."

James says that by working in a group drivers find the motivation to complete the program and make serious improvements.

James also says he'd like to see the program mandated as a requirement to renew one's driver's license.

He said he doesn't think licenses should be renewed unless drivers "show evidence that they participated in driving self-improvement activities."

Getting Worse

Driving psychology isn't really on the radar in the pursuit of mental wellness, James says. There isn't a great deal of therapy available to help drivers develop and maintain a healthy driving persona.

As a result of the lack of therapy and self-awareness, James says, we're getting worse.

"Right now we're breeding the next generation of road ragers and aggressive drivers," he said. "Every generation inherits all of the prior generation's norms and behaviors and adds their own."

Because of this downward spiral and James' belief driving is possibly the most dangerous activity people participate in every day, he says something must be done.

"You have a cultural norm of aggressive driving that is increasing with every generation because it gets projected more and more," he said. "We just have to remember that the way we drive affects everybody."