Emotions and Driving

Most people know that anger and impatience can be dangerous on the road. However, a sad or happy driver can also cause accidents. Strong emotions can be problems for drivers, potentially causing serious distractions for themselves and often endangering everyone around them through inconsistent and often unsafe driving. Being able to control emotions is an important part of staying safe the road.

Emotions that can affect driving generally come from two basic sources, according to the National Library of Medicine’s article on the emotional states of drivers in relation to traffic violations. Personal factors include elements such as the driver’s ability to stay calm in dangerous situations or even traffic jams. People who are easily flustered often make mistakes that can cause accidents because they fail to take the care they need for each maneuver.

The Problem of Anger and Impatience

Anger is possibly the most obvious emotion that can be dangerous on the road, especially with its close relationship to impatience. Drivers who become angry or impatient tend to become erratic, cutting in front of other drivers, speeding, going through lights that are about to turn red or making other risky moves. When drivers are very angry, they might not even realize that their driving has deteriorated, even when honking horns or screeching tires indicate a problem.  

These reactions can affect both the driver and other road users. While the driver reacts angrily or impatiently to a situation, other road users must try to guess what actions the driver will take. When drivers obey the rules and drive in a predictable manner, other road users can more easily make good decisions for themselves and help to make the roads safer. When drivers stay in their own lanes and pass only when necessary instead of weaving in and out of traffic, for example, other road users can more confidently make their own lane changes without wondering if another vehicle will move into the space at the same time.

Happiness, Sadness and other Emotions

Although anger and impatience are some of the most obviously risky emotions, they are not the only potentially dangerous feelings. Happiness and sadness can also become distractions when drivers pay too much attention to thinking about the situation rather than paying attention to the road.

For example, a happy event like the birth of a baby or finding a new job could distract drivers into thinking about that occurrence rather than concentrating on traffic and the needs of driving. When drivers are distracted in this way, they can more easily make mistakes or fail to notice dangers along the way.

Similarly, sadness can be a hindrance to safe driving. Tears in the eyes can temporarily blind drivers or at least obscure their vision until they are able to blink the liquid away. Thoughts of the sad event or situation can also distract drivers from paying attention to the road users around them and to any potential dangers they might encounter, such as pedestrians attempting to cross the street or the need to avoid an upcoming construction zone.

Other emotions can also affect drivers when they get behind the wheel of a vehicle. According to the study of the effects of emotions on driving, explained in the National Library of Medicine article, a flash of anger at an event on the road, such as being cut off by another vehicle, can lead drivers to accelerate and move at higher speeds for up to two kilometres after the actual event. If the angry driver also neglects some of the basic precautions for safely operating a vehicle, the results can be deadly.

Although anger can be one of the strongest emotions, anxiety, contempt or fear can lead to similar results for drivers. The effects of these emotions are normally weaker than with anger, but they can also lead to fast and dangerous driving. A sudden fright, such as having a vehicle stop abruptly on the road, often leads drivers to brake suddenly and either move too slowly or stop entirely. In some situations, these types of actions could lead to a pile-up of vehicles; if drivers fail to notice the danger in time, they may be unable to avoid an accident.

The Situation on the Road

The second main source of emotions is related to the specific situation on the road, just as a pile-up can result from emotions clouding a driver’s judgement. Some of the elements of the driving situation can be dangerous in themselves, such as an icy or muddy road, possibly causing fear or panic. A slow driver blocking traffic, a stalled vehicle and many other factors can affect drivers’ emotions on the road.

Being able to deal with situations such as these in a calm and logical manner is important, but drivers often react by accelerating to dangerous speeds or engaging in other potentially risky tactics.

The amount of experience that drivers have can make a difference to the emotions that they feel behind the wheel. Learning over time to deal with a variety of situations can help drivers control their emotions as they use the knowledge that they have gained to help them in any new situations that they have encountered. Even experienced drivers, however, can have emotions that interfere with their ability to operate vehicles safely.     

Among the many possible results of experiencing emotions behind the wheel of a vehicle, the Discovery Ltd. website lists four that are common and potentially dangerous. First, emotions can cause drivers to have tunnel vision so that they fail to notice anything except what is directly in front of them. This can be dangerous when people fail to observe vehicles coming from side roads or animals standing nearby which might suddenly jump in front of the vehicle.

The second result of being unable to control emotions on the road is that strong feelings can cause observation and reaction times to become slower. People who are concentrating on the road can react quickly to hazards, but emotions can become distractions if people fail to pay sufficient attention to what they are doing. The third consequence is that, with their attention elsewhere as they experience strong emotions, people can lose their ability to predict risky situations. Fourth, road rage is more likely to occur with people who are unable to control their emotions.

Limiting the Effects of Emotions

Any of these results of emotion can potentially be dangerous on the road. However, people can take steps to limit the negative effects of what they are feeling, such as the guidelines given on the Discovery Ltd. website. The first is to avoid dwelling on the causes of the emotion, whether positive or negative. The second is to be courteous to other drivers and to avoid reckless tactics such as cutting in front of other vehicles. That way, drivers will avoid causing problems for others on the road.

Personal techniques are also important for helping drivers overcome the effects of emotions. The third tactic is to take a few deep and slow breaths, which can help drivers calm down when they are angry or upset, and also give them a chance to focus on the road again when they are happy or excited. The fourth tactic is to pull over to the side of the road if necessary. Taking a few minutes for becoming calm again or listening to calming music and taking deep breaths can also help.

Once drivers have calmed down, they can return to the road, when the fifth tactic applies. Learning to focus on the road and on the task of driving can help drivers to anticipate any problems that may be coming and to plan evasive maneuvers if necessary. Finally, the sixth tactic is to plan ahead and to leave earlier if necessary. With an earlier departure, people are less likely to rush, making it easier to pause when necessary to recover from emotional reactions to events.

Penalties for Impairment

Strong emotions, whether positive or negative, can affect drivers as much as impairments from alcohol or drugs. The government of Ontario’s website lists some of the penalties for impaired driving, including license suspension, large fines, and mandatory attendance at an education or treatment program. Emotions are much more difficult to detect than the presence of a substance, but erratic or unsafe driving because of an emotional response could still result in penalties if the driver is caught.

Besides the possibility of penalties, driving under the influence of emotions can have a negative effect on relationships and even work or student life. If drivers are unable to get to work or school on time because they have been in accidents, even minor ones, this will eventually affect their performance and the opinions of others around them. Family members and friends may be reluctant to ride with the drivers and may choose other modes of transportation, while employers could require the employee to take anger management classes or other courses to deal with the problem.

No one can eliminate all emotions from their minds while driving, but drivers should be aware of how their emotions affect them. With a better understanding of emotions, drivers can work to control their negative effects while becoming more reliable road users and helping to keep everyone around them safe.