Fear and Anger induce drivers to speed

Lüneburg. After a scare - such as after a close call - drivers often do not behave more carefully. On the contrary: many really start speeding over the next few kilometers. Researchers of the Leuphana University of Lüneburg came to this conclusion in a recent study. A total of 79 test persons participated in the study. In a driving simulator, they had to control a vehicle on a test track and record their emotions afterwards. In the process they were exposed to a variety of typical traffic situations.

In one occasion, for instance, they had to suddenly break to avoid a collision. Afterwards they did slow down for a short while, but in the kilometers thereafter, they increased their speed again, frequently even exceeding the speed limit. They also drove more erratically, by steering more abruptly, for instance.

“Fear adversely changes driving behavior in a measurable way,” Dr. Ernst Roidl summarized. He designed and carried out the study together with Professor Dr. Rainer Höger of the Leuphana University of Lüneburg. “Fear reduces our readiness to take risks, and yet at the same time we engage in more risky behavior,” says Roidl. “We suspect that many people drive more carelessly after a scare: their thoughts are still focused on the hazardous situation and therefore they no longer react adequately to what is happening on the road in front of them at that moment.”

Anger is a bad co-pilot

Anger also induces us to drive too quickly. When the test drivers were forced to follow behind a Sunday driver for a while, they stepped on the gas pedal afterwards with a lot more gusto. They also drove in a riskier manner than they normally did. This effect lasted for a couple of minutes. “When we are angry, we tend to overestimate what we can do,” Roidl cautions. “Anger sharpens our focus; we think we have everything under control. Therefore we are more readily willing to take risks.”

Professor Höger has been researching the effect of emotions on our driving behavior for the last couple of years. The industrial psychologist has been searching for technical methods with which to measure the emotional state of the driver. One possible approach would involve a steering wheel with built-in sensors that could keep a record of the sweat production in hands or the tension in muscles. Such a car might then also generate a warning message to make the driver aware of his tension.

At the moment, this is still the task of the passenger. But Roidl advises against using expressions, such as “Hey, just relax,” when trying to calm the driver down. Studies have shown that these types of expressions can actually increase the person’s anger. It might simply be better for the driver to briefly honk the horn to release the feelings of anger. “This is of course not a long-term solution,” the scientist emphasized.

Instead one should try to understand and identify with the person that triggers the anger: why is the driver in front of me such a slowpoke. Is he experiencing additional anxiety when I tailgate him? How would I react if someone behind me  flashed their lights? “That surely is one of the best cures for road rage,” says Roidl, “empathy!”

Ernst Roidl, Berit Frehse, Rainer Höger: Emotional states of drivers and the impact on speed, acceleration and traffic violations—A simulator study; Accident Analysis and Prevention 70 (2014) 282–292; DOI: 10.1016/j.aap.2014.04.010

Dr. Ernst Roidl
Institute for Experimental Industrial Psychology
Leuphana University of Lüneburg
Phone: 0176/2105555
E-Mail: roidl@leuphana.de

Prof. Dr. Rainer Höger
Institute for Experimental Industrial Psychology
Leuphana University of Lüneburg
Phone: 04131/677-7712
E-Mail: hoeger@uni.leuphana.de