Looking to Avoid Aggressive Drivers? Check Those Bumpers.

Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 16, 2008

Three horrors await Americans who get behind the wheel of a car for a family road trip this summer: the spiraling price of gas, the usual choruses of "are-we-there-yet?" -- and the road rage of fellow drivers.

Divine intervention might be needed for the first two problems, but science has discovered a solution for the third.

Watch out for cars with bumper stickers.

That's the surprising conclusion of a recent study by Colorado State University social psychologist William Szlemko. Drivers of cars with bumper stickers, window decals, personalized license plates and other "territorial markers" not only get mad when someone cuts in their lane or is slow to respond to a changed traffic light, but they are far more likely than those who do not personalize their cars to use their vehicles to express rage -- by honking, tailgating and other aggressive behavior.

It does not seem to matter whether the messages on the stickers are about peace and love -- "Visualize World Peace," "My Kid Is an Honor Student" -- or angry and in your face -- "Don't Mess With Texas," "My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student."

Hey, you clown! This ain't funny! Aggressive driving might be responsible for up to two-thirds of all U.S. traffic accidents that involve injuries.

Szlemko and his colleagues at Fort Collins found that people who personalize their cars acknowledge that they are aggressive drivers, but usually do not realize that they are reporting much higher levels of aggression than people whose cars do not have visible markers on their vehicles.

Drivers who do not personalize their cars get angry, too, Szlemko and his colleagues concluded in a paper they recently published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, but they don't act out their anger. They fume, mentally call the other driver a jerk, and move on.

"The more markers a car has, the more aggressively the person tends to drive when provoked," Szlemko said. "Just the presence of territory markers predicts the tendency to be an aggressive driver."

The key to the phenomenon apparently lies in the idea of territoriality. Drivers with road rage tend to think of public streets and highways as "my street" and "my lane" -- in other words, they think they "own the road."

Why would bumper stickers predict which people are likely to view public roadways as private property?

Social scientists such as Szlemko say that people carry around three kinds of territorial spaces in their heads. One is personal territory -- like a home, or a bedroom. The second kind involves space that is temporarily yours -- an office cubicle or a gym locker. The third kind is public territory: park benches, walking trails -- and roads.

Previous research has shown that these different territorial spaces evoke distinct emotional responses. People are willing to physically defend private territory in ways they would never do with public territory. And people personalize private territory with various kinds of markers -- in their homes, for example, they hang paintings, alter the decor and carry out renovations.

"Territoriality is hard-wired into our ancestors from tens of thousands of years ago," said Paul Bell, a co-author of the study at Colorado State. "Animals are territorial because it had survival value. If you could keep others away from your hunting groups, you had more game to spear . . . it becomes part of the biology."

Drivers who individualize their cars using bumper stickers, window decals and personalized license plates, the researchers hypothesized, see their cars in the same way as they see their homes and bedrooms -- as deeply personal space, or primary territory.

Unlike any environment our evolutionary ancestors might have confronted, driving a car simultaneously places people in both private territory -- their cars -- and public territory -- the road. Drivers who personalize their cars with bumper stickers and other markers of private territory, the researchers argue, forget when they are on the road that they are in public territory because the immediate cues surrounding them tell them that they are in a deeply private space.

"If you are in a vehicle that you identify as a primary territory, you would defend that against other people whom you perceive as being disrespectful of your space," Bell added. "What you ignore is that you are on a public roadway -- you lose sight of the fact you are in a public area and you don't own the road."

Szlemko said that, in an as-yet-unpublished experiment, he conducted tests of road rage in actual traffic. He had one researcher sit in a car in a left-turn lane. When the light turned green, the researcher simply stayed still, blocking the car behind.

Another researcher, meanwhile, examined whether the blocked car had bumper stickers and other markers of territoriality. The experimental question was how long it would take for the driver of the blocked car to honk in frustration.

Szlemko said that drivers of cars with decals, bumper stickers and personalized license plates honked at the offending vehicle nearly two full seconds faster than drivers of cars without any territorial markers.

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