Psychological similarities trump cultural differences when it comes to drivers' behavior, according to Dwight Hennessy, associate professor of psychology at Buffalo State College. Hennessy is a contributing author as well as the editor of Traffic Psychology: An International Perspective.
"Researchers have found, for example, that Chinese drivers are as likely to engage in aggressive driving behaviors as American drivers are," said Hennessy. "This surprised a number of people because Chinese culture is sometimes thought to reflect a more collective sensibility than American culture, which prizes individuality."
Hennessy also debunks the notion that men are more aggressive drivers than women. "Men and women exhibit the same kinds of aggressive behavior," he said. "Leaning on the horn, swearing, yelling, gesturing, and flashing high beams are performed by women as often as by men." The only difference is that men are more likely than women to get out of their cars and engage in personal confrontations.
Traffic Psychology includes research from psychologists in 20 countries, and reflects work in various specialties within the discipline, including clinical, developmental, cognitive, and social psychology. The emergence of traffic psychology as a subspecialty reflects the reality that traffic and driving are behaviors that affect billions of people on Earth, with close to 700 million personal-use vehicles on the road as of 2008.
"While driving customs differ," said Hennessy, "the issues are the same. For example, the amount of space a driver expects to have around his or her car varies from country to country, but if that expectation is violated, drivers everywhere become stressed."
Personality types that engage in displays of aggression also tend to be the same across cultures. "People who get angry more frequently and more intensely are set off by more things," said Hennessy. "People who are controlling are also more likely to display aggression." He emphasized, however, that anyone can become aggressive under the right provocation.
For example, stress may lead to aggression behind the wheel, and many factors create stress. "Time management is one issue," said Hennessy. "People don't give themselves enough time to reach their destinations." People are also quick to identify other drivers as bad drivers, even with very limited evidence, while 90 percent of drivers believe that their own driving skills are above average.
Stress doesn't end when the driver gets out of the car, Hennessy noted. "The stress people experience during their drive can affect their behavior long after they arrive at their destinations," he said.
Hennessy has been studying aggressiveness and other behaviors exhibited by drivers for many years. Although he is often cited as a "road rage" expert, he dislikes the term. "Most people want to become better drivers," he said.
Ultimately, Hennessy hopes that Traffic Psychology is a tool for improving public health and traffic safety.