Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Emotions & Driving in Stressful Traffic Situations

November 7, 2016
heavy traffic can be stressful

I recently co-authored a study led by Dr. Yi-Ching Lee that was published in Transportation Research Part F: Psychology and Behavior and funded by the Center for Child Injury Prevention Studies (CChIPS) to validate a simulator protocol for studying the impact of emotions on teen driving. In addition to the four widely recognized factors - drunk, drugged, distracted and drowsy driving - strong emotions are another major factor that increase the risk of a crash.

When faced with challenging or unexpected traffic situations, most drivers, regardless of their age, become frustrated or angry. Besides being inexperienced drivers, teens have not yet developed the ability to control their emotions in high-stress traffic situations. In this study, we wanted to explore whether newly-licensed teen drivers that were more affected emotionally by stressful traffic events reacted by exhibiting more unsafe behaviors.

Self-reported data were collected from 33 young driver participants who reported their emotional state at four time points during the protocol to a variety of stressful driving situations. What we found is that all the drivers experienced changes in their emotions; those with the strongest negative reactions had the most unsafe driving behaviors. In particular, they did not cope well with the presence of slow-moving or braking cars in front, causing them to brake or react in a short time.

These patterns of behavior have safety consequences for newly-licensed drivers who will undoubtedly experience these challenging situations. If they react by becoming emotional rather than remaining level-headed…

  • Their emotions may impede their ability to detect and respond to the potential hazard that the other driver caused.
  • Their unchecked negative thoughts may lead to aggressive behaviors in response to the other driver.
  • The high levels of negative emotions will likely linger leading to continued suboptimal driving performance and unsafe behaviors.

We need to help newly licensed teens manage their emotions when driving and to be better aware of changes in driving environments, including slow-moving vehicles, tailgating, and heavy traffic. A very important concept to teach them is to give other drivers the benefit of the doubt. It is highly unlikely that other drivers intentionally put them at risk.

Since young drivers have the highest crash risk, these educational efforts have the potential to drive down the incidence of crashes involving teens behind the wheel. By reducing the degree of negative reactions to stressful traffic situations, we can help decrease the likelihood of driving errors in this most vulnerable population of drivers.

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