July 16, 2002

Post 9/11 anger to be vented on the highways says behavioural scientist

Washington, D.C. – A leading behavioural scientist is warning motorists to expect an increase in aggressive driving, now that the widespread compassion seen after the September 11th terrorist attacks has declined.

Steven Stosny, Ph.D., Director of CompassionPower and a behavioral specialist, said, “Traumatic loss, such as we experienced on September 11th, makes us humanize one another. We need to comfort and be comforted. When we look for human connection, we’re not aggressive; the antidote to aggression is compassion.”

“Unfortunately, this has been short-lived. The problems we’re seeing now on our roads and highways are a reflection of a wider community problem of resentment and anger,” Dr. Stosny added. “We get the most angry when we feel the most powerless. Resentful and angry people make themselves even more powerless by blaming their emotions on traffic, the design of the highway and other drivers. The more we focus on what we can’t control, such as heavy traffic, the more powerless we feel, and the more we take this feeling out on other drivers.”

Dr. Stosny continued, “Arenas where aggression can be played out are school, home, work or the highway. It’s most likely to be played out in driving because we don’t know the other drivers. We’re anonymous.”

Physiological changes associated with anger also encourage aggressive driving. “Anger dilates the eyes, distorts depth perception and gives us better peripheral vision,” Dr. Stosny added. “That’s why so many aggressive driving behaviors include tailgating and cutting off other drivers, because aggressive drivers misjudge distances.”

Dr. Stosny notes that car designs over the last 10 to 20 years might encourage people to take out their aggression on the highway. He described today’s cars as “different from what they were 20 years ago. They’re much quieter. The windows are more tinted. The radio is going, so we’re not hearing people. We’re not seeing the normal human cues that keep aggressive impulses in check. Other drivers are not people, they’re just machines.” This type of attitude behind the wheel, he added, encourages motorists to take out their pent-up resentment and aggression on drivers in other vehicles.

Dr. Stosny suggests that motorists confronted with aggressive drivers get out of their way, avoid eye contact, ignore rude gestures and resist the temptation to teach them ‘a lesson.’ Don’t let a jerk make you a jerk. Motorists also should avoid tailgating and blocking the passing lane, especially if they are driving more slowly than most of the traffic. He recommends that motorists pull over and dial 911 on their cell phones to report aggressive drivers.

Aggressive driving includes speeding, running red lights and stop signs, tailgating, weaving in and out of traffic to gain position, using the shoulder of the road instead of waiting in backed-up traffic and “sweeping,” or moving across more than one lane of traffic without pausing.

Dr. Stosny conducts anger regulation classes to help aggressive drivers understand their behavior behind the wheel and empower themselves by ensuring the safety of every child and adult in every car they see. He is a member of the Smooth Operator Coalition, a group of officials, government agencies and private sector partners in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. The program began strictly as a law enforcement effort in Tidewater and Northern Virginia in 1997 and now includes 50 law enforcement agencies in the three jurisdictions. In 2000, a public awareness campaign was added to the law enforcement effort to inform people about the seriousness of the aggressive driving problem and the steps that can be taken to reduce aggressive driving.

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