More than half of British motorists admit they behave aggressively when driving and that their personality changes when they are in their car, according to a new survey.
The insurance company that commissioned the research has described it as “Jekyll and Hyde” behaviour, while a director of a road safety charity says some people in cars act similarly to cornered animals.
Churchill Car Insurance’s survey of 2,005 UK adults found that 58 per cent of people agreed that they act aggressively at the wheel, while 57 per cent admitted that their behaviour changes when driving.
One example given was that while 12 per cent of people said they had sworn at a stranger face-to-face, but 31 per cent say they done so when they are in a car. Likewise, 26 per cent have shouted at other drivers on the road, but 12 per cent when out of the car.
Types of aggressive driving people admitted to include beeping their horn, at 33 per cent, swearing at other drivers, which 31 per cent said they did, while 11 per cent agreed they tailgate other motorists and 4 per cent confessed to chasing another car in anger.
According to Churchill, one of the major factors behind the apparent change in personality is that “drivers feel disassociated from their environment, their car a safe place allowing them to express anger and frustration at another driver and even at life in general without the risk of direct conflict.
“There is no one to criticise or in close contact, so people feel detached from situations and more able to express their feelings.”
Half of drivers said that the reason for their aggression was to vent their frustration, while around three in 10 agreed it was a bad habit with a similar proportion saying it wasn’t a conscious decision and they just get angry in the car.
Psychologist Donna Dawson, quoted by Churchill, said that motorists needed to drive defensively and not overreact to any “perceived injustice.”
She said: “One of the reasons drivers exert such different behaviours when on the road is the belief that their behaviour is justified by the circumstances – we tell ourselves ‘the other driver caused me to react this way due to their bad driving. In other words, I am a perfectly reasonable person, reacting normally to another person’s bad behaviour.’”
“Motorists are human beings, not machines, and so they are prone to inconsistency, distraction and making mistakes.
“With this in mind, motorists should learn to drive ‘defensively’ and avoid driving in a stressed and nervous state. Being calm, alert and aware is essential - an angry, aggressive driver is a danger to themselves and others because they are out of control, so it’s better to give them a wide berth and to shrug it off.”
She continued: “The secret is not overreacting; if we became angry at every perceived injustice that occurred to us on the road, we would damage our mental and physical health and probably end up in an accident.
"The only way to make driving safe and more tolerable on our congested roads is to show each other patience and consideration. Consideration is contagious, and once it’s shown to you, you are more likely to show it to someone else,” she added.
The survey found that men were much more likely to be aggressive behind the wheel than women – 67 per cent vs 49 per cent – and that behaviour appeared to mellow with age, with 62 per cent of drivers aged 18-34 admitting aggressive behaviour compared to 49 per cent of people aged 55 and above.
Churchill’s head of car insurance, Steve Barrett, said: “If you’re confronted with aggressive behaviour on the roads, then try to continue driving calmly and don’t get drawn into an instance of road rage.
“Remember that these frustrations often blow over as quickly as they arose, so it’s best not to give them any oxygen to escalate.”
Neil Greig, who is head of policy and research at the road safety charity the Institute of Advanced Motorists, told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “Psychologists have known for years that cornered animals behave aggressively and being trapped in a metal box in heavy traffic can change even the most mild-mannered of drivers.
“The key is to learn your trigger signs, avoid confrontation and develop simple coping strategies – for example, not assuming that every mistake made by another driver is a deliberate attempt to harm you.”
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.