The Psychological Nature of the Driver


Driving safely and being courteous on the road, are essential to avoiding collisions and traffic citations. 

Psychological Nature 

Having the physical ability to operate a motor vehicle is really only half of the picture.  Being in the right psychological sate – that is, having the right attitudes, motivation, and traits –  is also essential to driving safely, being courteous, and avoiding collisions and traffic tickets.

 According to the CDC, “motor vehicle crashes are the second leading cause of death for U.S. teens. Teen motor vehicle crashes are preventable, and proven strategies can improve the safety of young drivers on the road. 

In 2019, almost 2,400 teens in the United States aged 13–19 were killed, and about 258,000 were treated in emergency departments for injuries suffered in motor vehicle crashes. That means that every day, about seven teens aged 13–19 died due to motor vehicle crashes, and hundreds more were injured. In addition, motor vehicle crash deaths among teens 15–19 years of age resulted in about $4.8 billion in medical and work loss costs for crashes that occurred in 2018. 

 The risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among teens aged 16–19 than among any other age group. In fact, per mile driven, teen drivers in this age group are nearly three times as likely as drivers aged 20 or older to be in a fatal crash.

Teens who are at especially high risk for motor vehicle crashes are:


  • In 2019, the motor vehicle death rate for male drivers aged 16–19 was over two times higher than the death rate for female drivers of the same age.

 Teens driving with teen passengers:

  • The presence of teen passengers increases the crash risk of unsupervised teen drivers. This risk increases with each additional teen passenger.

Newly licensed teens:

  • Crash risk is particularly high during the first months of licensure. Data from the 2016–2017 National Household Travel Survey indicate that the crash rate per mile driven is about 1.5 times as high for 16-year-olds as it is for 18–19-year-olds.

What factors can put teens at risk?


  • Teens are more likely than older drivers to underestimate or not be able to recognize dangerous situations. Teens are also more likely than adults to make critical decision errors that can lead to serious crashes.

Nighttime and Weekend Driving:

  • In 2019, 40% of motor vehicle crash deaths among teen drivers and passengers aged 13–19 occurred between 9 pm and 6 am, and 52% occurred on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.

Not Using Seat Belts:

  • Compared with other age groups, teens and young adults often have the lowest seat belt use rates. For example, results from the National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS) Controlled Intersection study from 2016–2019 indicate that seat belt use among teens and young adults (16–24 years of age) was approximately 87% each year, whereas seat belt use among adults (25 years of age or older) was about 90% or higher for each year during the same period.11
  • In 2019, 43.1% of U.S. high school students did not always wear a seat belt when riding in a car driven by someone else.
  • Among teen drivers and passengers 16–19 years of age who died in car crashes in 2019, almost half were unrestrained at the time of the crash (when restraint use was known).

Distracted Driving:

  • Distraction negatively effects driving performance for all drivers but can be especially dangerous for young, inexperienced drivers.
  • Results from the 2019 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed that, among U.S. high school students who drove, 39.0% texted or e-mailed while driving at least once during the 30 days before the survey.


  • Teens are more likely than older drivers to speed and allow shorter headways (the distance from the front of one vehicle to the front of the next).
  • In 2018, 30% of male drivers aged 15–20 years and 18% of female drivers aged 15–20 years who were involved in fatal crashes were speeding. These were the highest percentages by sex as compared with all other age groups.

Alcohol Use:

  • Drinking any amount of alcohol before driving increases crash risk among teen drivers as compared with older drivers. Teen drivers have a much higher risk for being involved in a crash than older drivers at the same blood alcohol concentration (BAC), even at BAC levels below the legal limit for adults.
  • Drinking alcohol is illegal for people less than 21 years of age, as is driving after drinking any amount of alcohol. Despite this, in 2018, 24% of drivers aged 15–20 who were killed in fatal motor vehicle crashes had been drinking.
  • In 2018, 15% of drivers aged 16–20 involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes had a BAC of 0.08% or higher – a level that is illegal for adults aged 21 or older in all U.S. states.
  • In 2018, 69% of drivers aged 15–20 who were killed in motor vehicle crashes after drinking and driving were not wearing a seat belt (based on known restraint use).
  • For young drivers involved in fatal crashes, alcohol involvement is typically higher among male drivers than among female drivers. In 2018, 21% of male drivers aged 15–20 years and 14% of female drivers aged 15–20 years involved in fatal crashes had been drinking prior to the crash.”


Essential ATTITUDES of Good Drivers 

The attitudes essential to good driving are courtesy, consideration for others, alertness, using good judgment, acting responsibly, and foresight.

Readiness and Motivation 

Being ready to drive involves more than just checking your vehicle equipment and having a license. You have to be mentally ready for all different traffic conditions and gained all the necessary knowledge, skills, and abilities through practice and training courses.  In order to drive safely, all drivers need to have readiness, which is to be completely focused on the task at hand.

You have to also be motivated to learn and apply the safe driving attitudes.  You need to first be motivated to learn how to be a safe driver in driver education and training, and then be motivated to apply what you learned to actual real-life situations.  Not all drivers will drive as safely as you do; you have to be motivated to have a safe driving attitude, regardless of other driver’s behavior towards you.

Bad Driving Habit Patterns

Young drivers are more willing to take risks compared to other drivers.  They are more likely to perceive hazardous situations as less dangerous than they really are.  

Although drivers under age 25 have the fastest simple reaction times, they respond to traffic hazards more slowly than mid-age drivers, suggesting that they frequently fail to recognize situations as being potentially hazardous.

Young drivers overestimate their capabilities; drivers aged 18 to 24 perceive themselves as being less likely than other drivers their age to be involved in an accident. Young drivers rate certain traffic situations as less risky than mid-age and older drivers, especially situations involving darkness, graded or curved roadways, intersections and rural environments. Teens tend to underestimate the danger in high-risk situations and to overestimate the danger in low to medium risk driving situations.

The above facts demonstrate that teens are not good at judging their skill level or the level of danger in driving situations. It is important that you, and the people who teach you how to drive, analyze and identify the problem attitudes and behaviors you exhibit while driving. For example, do you tend to visually-search less often after you have been driving for a while than when you begin driving? You should constantly monitor yourself while you are driving to identify poor driving habits and attitudes.

Practice Good Driving Habits

Once you identify a poor driving habit or attitude, you should substitute the appropriate behavior or point of view. You must continuously practice that appropriate behavior or point of view until it becomes automatic. For example, if you recognize that you start to slack in your visual-scanning over time, you should remind yourself to do so continually during your driving, until it becomes something you do automatically, all the time.

You need to repeatedly practice correct responses to hazards while learning how to drive. Remember that only training and practice can overcome poor driving habits and attitudes.

Maintenance Through Performance

Established good driving habits and attitudes can slowly deteriorate over time. In other words, just because you have good driving habits and attitudes now does not mean you will have them in the future. You need to continue to check yourself while driving, even after you have your license, to identify and correct areas where your habits and attitudes have worsened.

Remember to practice the correct behavior and having the correct attitude. Only through continued analysis and application of appropriate habits and attitudes can you effectively maintain your good driving habits in the future.


Psychological MOTIVATIONS of Driving Behavior

There are a number of characteristics that can affect your psychological ability to focus on the driving task and react safely and courteously. These characteristics include (a) emotional tension, (b) environmental conditions (both inside and outside your vehicle), (c) heredity of behaviors, (d) physical conditions of your body, and (e) the amount of training and practice you’ve had.

Emotional Distress

Your emotional state influences your ability to concentrate, stay alert, be courteous, think clearly and rapidly, contain anger and aggressiveness and control tendencies to “show off.”

Safe driving requires all your concentration. If you are preoccupied with your emotions, you will not be able to focus on the task of driving safely. Therefore, you should not drive if you are under severe tension, emotionally distressed (e.g., depressed, angry or upset), or otherwise preoccupied with your emotions, thoughts or personal problems.

Being late to work or to an appointment can also cause you to become stressed and, hence, drive unsafely. Being late for an event is not an excuse to drive poorly. The few seconds you may save by weaving in and out of traffic, or speeding, are unlikely to make a difference anyway. The best thing to do is just accept the fact that you are going to be late, and plan better next time to avoid finding yourself in the same situation.

Environmental Conditions

Conditions of the environment, both inside and outside your vehicle, can also affect your ability to concentrate, be courteous and drive safely. Conditions outside of your vehicle, such as heavy traffic, bad weather and road work, can cause you to become stressed, especially if you are in a hurry. There is usually very little that you can do to alleviate the situation. If you find yourself in this situation and notice that you are becoming stressed, get off the road and make a phone call to inform someone that you are going to be late.

Become familiar with routes you are going to drive and the traffic conditions on the route at different times of the day. In the future, allow extra time when driving that route, or try another one instead.

Chronic traffic congestion is the California commuter’s biggest headache, but even small changes in driving habits could provide relief of traffic congestion. Avoid doing the following: (a) rubbernecking [slowing down to look at accidents or other situations], (b) tailgating [following too closely], (c) unnecessary lane changes [weaving in and out of traffic lanes], and (d) inattention [e.g., eating, grooming, talking on a cellular phone, reading, etc.].

If another driver does something to make you angry, take a few deep breaths and do not react aggressively. Remember that people sometimes make mistakes (including you) and forget about them. (See “road rage,” below)

Conditions inside of your vehicle, such as distracting passengers, loud music and doing other things while driving can also cause you to drive unsafely. Driving is a complex task that requires your full attention. (See “inattentiveness” below)


If you have a parent who tends to drive aggressively or be inattentive while driving, you should take steps to make sure that you do not assimilate or express his or her poor driving habits. Some characteristics are passed genetically, or through modeling others’ behavior, and only proper training and practice can overcome poor traits that are passed-on from your parents.

Family (and friends) may not necessarily be good drivers; avoid using them as role models if they do not practice safe driving habits.

 Physical Conditions

 Illnesses or injuries can negatively affect your ability to concentrate on safe driving. Be aware of the effects of the medications you take for illness or injuries before you get behind the wheel; you will be held responsible for their effects on your driving.


Proper training through driver education and practice on the road will make you more comfortable with driving. When you first begin, you will likely be nervous about your ability level. As good driving behaviors and attitudes become automatic through practice, you will be better able to enjoy driving. When you see others who are just learning how to drive, be courteous and remember how nervous you were the first time you got behind the wheel.


Undesirable TRAITS for a Driver

There are a number of traits which are dangerous while driving. They include aggressiveness, egotism, emotional instability, inattentiveness, exhibition and irresponsibility.

Aggressiveness (Road Rage)

Aggressive driving is often referred to as “road rage.” Road rage happens when one driver reacts negatively to another driver. Angry drivers may lash out at other drivers, including you.

Road rage is characterized by a driver using their vehicle in an angry and aggressive manner such as:

(a) deliberate sudden braking
(b) pulling close to another car
(c) tailgating
(d) attempting to coerce another driver to pull over to settle a dispute
(e) cutting off other drivers
(f) speeding up when someone attempts to pass
(g) honking the horn or flashing headlights
(h) yelling or making obscene gestures.

Anger and driving don’t mix. Behind the wheel is no place for aggression. But more and more often people are letting their emotions get the best of them. One recent report states that between 1990-1996, over 10,000 incidents of road rage were reported. People zigzagging in and out of traffic, cutting another motorist off and tailgating for long distances can lead to collisions, disputes and even death. Impatience is one of the prime causes leading to risk-taking, discourteous driving and disputes. Being more patient behind the wheel will go a long way to keeping you away from road rage.

The following are examples of common behaviors that can lead to aggressive driving and how to avoid them:

Lane Blocking–Don’t block the passing lane. Stay out of the far left lane if other traffic wants to drive faster, and yield to the right for any vehicle that wants to pass.
Tailgating–Maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you. If you are being tailgated, leave more space between you and the vehicle in front of you.
Signal Lights–Always use your signals when changing lanes, and avoid changing lanes too close to the other vehicles. After you have changed lanes, turn your signal off.
Gestures–If you must gesture to another driver, do so in a way that will not be interpreted as hostile or obscene.
Horn–Avoid using your horn to say “hello” to a pedestrian. The driver in front of you might think you are honking at them.
Failure to Turn–Unless otherwise posted, right turns are allowed after a complete stop at a red light. Choosing to wait for the green light may frustrate the drivers behind you, but is not illegal.
Parking–Do not take more than one parking space. Do not park in the disabled parking space if you do not have a disabled parking placard or plates.
Headlights–If you use your high-beam headlights, dim your lights for oncoming traffic and when approaching a vehicle from behind; do not retaliate to oncoming high beams with your own.
Merging–When traffic permits, make room to allow vehicles to merge into your lane.

If you find yourself in a situation with an aggressive driver, avoid making eye contact. To some people, eye contact is the same as a challenge. If someone is determined to act out his or her frustrations, even a friendly smile can be misinterpreted. Give the angry driver plenty of space. If you make a driving error (even accidentally), it is possible the other driver may try to pick a fight with you. Put as much distance between your vehicle and the other car as you can, even by changing routes, if necessary.

Do not be aggressive towards other drivers when you are on the road. Be patient when other drivers make mistakes. Avoid getting frustrated by giving yourself extra time to get to your destination and being aware of road conditions so that you can take an alternate route.

If you think you are being followed, don’t drive home. You would only be showing your follower where you live. You should: (a) stay calm — as long as you think clearly, you’ll be in control of the situation, (b) flash your lights and sound your horn long enough to attract attention to you, and consequently the person following you, (c) drive to a safe spot such as a police station and sound your horn and flash your lights, (d) not leave this safe location until you’re sure your follower is gone.


Egotism is the same as being self-centered. People who are egotistical feel like they own the road and do not consider the rights of other drivers. The result of egotism is disrespect for other drivers on the road.

Drivers who are egotistic tend to engage in speeding, risk taking, unsafe rapid starts and aggressive behavior. Egotistical drivers do not make room for merging vehicles, do not yield the right-of-way, do not let other drivers pass, follow emergency vehicles too closely or fail to yield to them, and cut off other drivers by merging at too slow or too fast of a speed.

Remember that the road is shared by all drivers. Be aware of and courteous to other drivers and they will be more likely to be courteous to you.

Emotional Instability

Being angry or upset while driving can result in inattentiveness, aggressive behavior, poor judgment and poor vehicle control.

If you are angry or upset, do not drive your vehicle. You will not be able to give driving the full attention that it requires to drive safely. Make sure to calm down before you get behind the wheel.


For your safety and the safety of others, you should give driving your full attention. If you are distracted by psychological or situational factors, even for just a split second, you will not be able to react to hazards as quickly as necessary, which could result in a serious accident.

Distractions that can lead to accidents include:

(a) boisterous or inappropriate behavior by your passengers
(b) peer pressure to drive too fast or otherwise “show off”
(c) smart phones – texting, social media, music, etc.
(d) animals in the car
(e) small children in the car
(f) grooming and applying makeup while driving
(g) reading while driving
(h) emotional instability
(i) thinking about something other than driving while behind the wheel.

Remember that no one but you is responsible for your driving behavior. Reduce the distractions in your driving environment whenever possible. When you are driving, make sure that the only thing on your mind is driving safely.

Inattentiveness – Cellular Smart Phones

Cell phones are everywhere. In an emergency they can be a lifesaver. In non-emergency situations they can be a great tool if you use the cell phone in a safe and responsible manner.

Research has shown that drivers are at a much higher risk for being in an accident within a few minutes of using a cellular phone. Surprisingly, it appears that it is the emotional impact of the phone conversation, not the act of talking per se, that results in increased accident risk.

The safe use of cellular phones in vehicles includes (a) pulling over to the side of the road to use the phone, (b) knowing how to use your phone’s speed dial and redial functions, (c) using a hands-free device so you are able to keep both hands on the steering wheel, (d) keeping the phone within easy reach, (e) not using the phone during hazardous conditions [e.g., heavy traffic or bad weather], (f) letting the person to whom you are talking know you are in a car so you can terminate the conversation quickly, (g) paying attention to the road while talking, (h) placing calls when you are not moving, (i) if you must dial while driving, only dialing a few numbers at a time and checking traffic, (j) avoiding stressful, emotional or distracting conversations, and (k) letting calls go to voice mail so you don’t have to answer the phone while driving.

In emergency situations, you can use your phone to call for help; 911 is a free call on your cellular phone. However, for non-emergency situations (e.g., break downs, broken traffic signals) call roadside assistance or another non-emergency number.

TAKE NOTE: From JULY 1, 2008, Section 23123 of the California Vehicle Code mandates that “a person shall not drive a motor vehicle while using a wireless telephone unless that telephone is specifically designed and configured to allow hands-free listening and talking, and is used in that manner while driving. Drivers under the age of 18 may not use a wireless telephone, pager, laptop or any other electronic communication or mobile services device to speak or text while driving in any manner, even “hands-free.”

EXCEPTION: However, you are permitted in emergency situations to call police, fire or medical authorities (Vehicle Code Section 23124).

Exhibition (“Showing Off”)

Most evidence suggests that the number one factor in young drivers’ over-involvement in accidents is risk-taking. Young drivers often “show off” to impress their friends or others, which can lead to serious injury and death.

Exhibition on the road by speeding, weaving your vehicle back and forth, starting out from a signal too fast, peeling out, racing, passing dangerously, playing “chicken,” and failing to obey traffic signs/signals and the rules-of-the-road needlessly causes accidents.

Driving is a serious responsibility that requires mature behavior. If you can’t drive like an adult, stay off the road.


As a driver, you must take responsibility for your actions, the actions of your passengers and for the safe mechanical condition of your vehicle.

Teens who engage in higher-risk activities outside the driving situation tend to have higher traffic accident involvement, whether they are driving or riding as a passenger, suggesting that risky driving may be part of a more general syndrome of risk-taking behavior.

Safe driving requires (a) courtesy to others, (b) an understanding of the laws and rules of the road, (c) the ability to rapidly apply good judgment to situations, (d) the ability to recognize situations that could rapidly develop into hazards and (e) the ability to take responsibility for your own actions.

Your life and the lives of your passengers are in your hands while you are driving. If you act irresponsibly, such as by drinking and driving, you are putting more than just your own life at risk. Think before you act or get behind the wheel.