Why driving brings out the worst of us?

serious man in disposable mask and earbuds driving car at daytime
Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

I don’t know about you, but when I’m driving I sometimes feel that my personality somehow changes and I’m transforming into the worst version of myself.

A while back, when I noticed that, I tried to notice how other drivers behave. It turns out that most of them spit poison everywhere at the smallest mistake other drivers do. It’s like when we’re driving we forget the other cars are driven by people; people that are not perfect because we all are people. However, somehow, we think we are perfect drivers and every driver that makes a mistake is a piece of sh*t and he/she should die (I’m not even going to start with gender stereotypes).

So I started to wonder: why driving has this effect? Why do we swear and spit and react in a negative way if something as small as a fly cuts off our way when it’s green and we have priority? Why driving brings out the worst of us?

Let’s start with the environment: the magnificent car. I believe the car acts like a shell, a secure place where we can feel free, especially if we’re alone in the car. When we’re alone and we’re secure, our subconscious becomes powerful, mainly because the barriers set by our conscious (and/or society) don’t matter (and that’s because the lack of them impacts nobody). This brings me to the conclusion that driving alone becomes the perfect environment for making us feel free.

If we feel free, it doesn’t matter the importance of what happens around us. When we’re free, every little thing happening around us acts as a trigger for what we want to express, but we are stopped by the conscious/society barriers. So, if the barriers are gone thanks to the perfect environment, there is nothing in place to stop us to release our deepest frustrations.

If you’re wondering why the worst of us comes to the surface instead of the best of us, it’s because the best of us is not restricted by our conscious/society. We can always behave at our best without restrictions, whilst our worst has many restrictions in place, restrictions that seen to disappear when we’re driving (at least, that’s how our subconscious perceives it).

It seems that driving makes it easy to behave at our worst because we have no other environments to do so. If we’re alone in a room, there are no triggers, therefore our worst has no reason to come to the surface.

What do you think? Why driving brings out the worst of us?

PS: If my writings mean something to you and if you feel you can learn anything from me, check out my book (Fighting the Inside Dragons) on Amazon in both Kindle and Paperback format!

99 thoughts on “Why driving brings out the worst of us?

    1. Thank you very much for reading! Well, I guess we all gather some frustrations in time. Since you’re never usually like that, those frustrations never get out. I think that they find a way out when we’re in traffic because of that secure environment. Frustrations ways try to find a way out and we’re the most vulnerable, they escape. Don’t you think? 🙂

      1. …..Maybe you are right. It’s easier to get frustrated at a stranger you will never see again- than someone you know….

  1. Hahaha Totally related lol… good post!!

    Isolation was incredible, I still had to work but I had the roads to myself and was just amazingly awesome!!

    But yeah totally loved this post!

  2. Beautiful analysis.. the concept of triggering is nice one. and another thing i guess that is supported by the biological parameter too.. human body is not constructed for higher speed and when we drive the hormonal release make us bit aggressive to though i am not the biology student … just a thought..

    1. Oh yes! I didn’t mention the biological part because within a city the speed is pretty low, but it can have an impact, which is even bigger when it comes to highways and stuff like that. Thank you very much for reading and for the contribution! 😀

  3. You must be talking about my husband! He is so nice and kind all of the time especially to me that when I first sat on the passenger side of his car I couldn’t believe the cussing and criticizing that came out of him. It made a long trip super stressful for me. On the other hand, I can’t stand tailgaters who turn me into a car driving maniac wanting to stomp on my brakes letting them kiss the back of my car.

    1. The tailgaters are always annoying… I guess they suffer the most when it comes to getting angry in traffic and that’s why they annoy others as well. Thank you very much for reading!

    2. A couple of my younger brothers enjoyed riding with me when my car was in the shop and I had to drive with a manual transmission. They found it hilarious to listen to me curse when I had to shift gears in traffic.

  4. I’m on the opposite spectrum in that these feelings don’t hit me. I’m human with frustrations too, but it doesn’t seep into my driving nor do I employ any specific tactics to stop myself from lashing out, so maybe it’s a specific type of frustration that causes someone to act this way in a car.

    Maybe it’s the idea that we have somewhere to be? I know that whilst driving, I feel in no rush to be anywhere for the most part.

    1. It’s very interesting you mention about a specific frustration. I’m wondering what that can be if there is no rush to be somewhere. Maybe some people just don’t like driving and they want to be out of the car as soon as possible? However, that’s not the case for me. I love driving and I usually don’t rush to be somewhere… But talking about a specific frustration is interesting… or maybe a bunch of frustrations that make those people feel overwhelmed.
      As for you, I guess you’re stronger and the frustrations are not that big of a deal. Do you do sport or meditation or something that help you release some of the frustrations?

      1. Technically I do all of them to a degree, but I don’t think it has much to do with them either. The only certainty I can say is that it feels natural to not get frustrated.

        I can say that whenever a driver does something that I don’t agree with, my first response is almost always along the lines of ‘whatever’, as in if it happens then it happens.

        At the very least, it does show that there’s a way out of it. Sorry I can’t be of more help.

  5. I see this more when my husband drives but it is so true. He gets really aggressive and he has his own set of rules for driving etiquette in his head. It is like you said, people’s cars give them a sense of a shell…I think the same can be said about computers. When we get behind a machine we lose a degree a part of our humanity. Thank you for your thought provoking post!

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Danielle! Yes, computers have that effect too. I guess it’s part of the anonymity and protection computers give.

  6. I have a driving phobia ever since I met with an accident where I wasn’t even driving. Driving overwhelms me since then, but now I guess I should try my hand it to see if it brings the worst or the best of me 😝

  7. It’s often unwise to yell at our boss or spouse, so we bottle it up. When we’re driving, the bottle cap sometimes comes off. I just try to catch myself and ask, “Am I being crazy right now?” If the answer is “yes,” that awareness helps me calm down.

    1. Yes, awareness can help us get back on track. And as you said, it’s unwise to yell at the ones we know so it’s better the bottle cap comes off when nobody really cares.

  8. I’m normally a peaceful and patient driver. My inner monster doesn’t come out until someone does something extremely dangerous, like pulling out in front of 60mph traffic, for example. I know folks aren’t perfect and I try to take that into consideration. BUT don’t be a stupid driver or my monster will devour you! Lol.

  9. Agreed. I am often ashamed at myself when I drive, especially at my thinking patterns and reactions to other people’s driving styles. But I guess the crucial point is that I have forgotten about all of this within minutes. Whatever primitive rage driving evokes, seems to be (luckily) short term.

  10. Bogdan,

    This post reminds me of a lecture I had once in a group dynamics course in university.

    There are many psychological concepts associated with communication & expression, and within the context of your post, one in particular comes to mind that fascinates me.

    Social psychologist Fritz Heider proposed the theory of attribution to explain behaviors amongst and within groups. Attribution theory states that we seek explanation for others’ behaviors by referring to the context of the situation or the other person’s disposition. The fundamental attribution error is a concept in social psychology wherein we tend to, as observers of others’ behaviors, underestimate the context of the situation and overestimate the other person’s predispositions. By this, I mean that we seek blame in the character or personality of the other person for their negative behaviors, and look towards context and environmental factors when explaining their good behaviors.

    Ultimately, our application of attribution theory and fundamental attribution error depends largely on our moods, experiences, perspectives, and other internal and external factors.

    If you happened to be in a pleasant mood, and were cut off in traffic, perhaps you’d attribute the other driver’s behavior as being due to an emergency- not an unreasonable action based on context. However, in a poor mood, you may seek explanation in blaming the other driver’s character, and make assumptions about their personalities.

    That was the exact example given in university lecture some years ago- hopefully my comment provides some kind of perspective on social psychology and how the brain functions to explain the behaviors of others.

    Thanks for the brain food!

    1. Thank you for your awesome comment! So the way we react is dependent on our mood. Besides the proper environment, the worse our prior mood is, the worse we’ll react. Very interesting!

  11. The feeling of having the vehicle wrapped around us is certainly a main culprit in the letting go of our morality. Though I don’t have to fight my own road rage, I do cuss more when I drive because I’m certain that anyone around me can’t hear a word of what I’m saying.

    1. Thank you very much! Yes, it is indeed a mood changer. Happy when we’re the only car on a country road and sad when the circumstance allows it 🙂

  12. I like this post! I have two thoughts.

    1. You may be interested in the psychology concept called the Fundamental Attribution Error. You mentioned how the environment affects us – I totally agree! This concept basically says that when we evaluate the behavior of the other person, we make assumptions based on their personality while disregarding their environment. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s fascinating. Especially since they included the word “Fundamental” in the name!

    2. This reminds me of people playing video games and the terrible trash talk that occurs. I think it has to do with the partial interactions people have. The other player, or the other driver, is not seen as the complete person that they are, so we dehumanize them. If we see them as less than human, we treat them angrily!

    How do you think people would act if everything said (while in the car, playing video games) was said face-to-face?

    I think very different and much more calmly!

  13. Driving often alters a person’s mood negatively. All the stop 🛑 and go traffic wears one down. The moment you are running late moods elevate. It’s worse for children to witness their parents and other drivers in a fit of rage. Absolutely terrifying for them. Think of realistic ways to avoid the chaos. Give yourself peace of mind. Most importantly be safe. Best wishes

  14. Very thought provoking. It brings me the awareness that my driving is a mirror reflection of myself. Sometimes I can be gracious, and sometimes rude. My behavior behind the wheel gives me the opportunity to reflect on on my attitude and make necessary corrections both in the car amend in my life. Thanks. I needed that!

  15. This is so very true– when we are all by ourselves, it is much easier to overreact! However, the degree to which we act on these impulses when no one else is watching depends almost entirely on what we do to cultivate our own conscience and character.

    It’s been said that “character means doing the right thing when no one else is watching.” I would say that if we feel comfortable spouting off and overreacting in the absence of other observers, then that’s a sign we have done little to develop our own character. If the watchful eyes of society are the only thing holding us back from spitting poison, then there really is no incentive to behave decently when we think we are alone– and sadly, I think that is the case for many people.

  16. stay cool minded and think god have blessed you with a car and with more power , our responsibility increase. many times when i give priority to other while on road, it gave me a deep satisfaction.
    one day i was just about to collide with someone and we both managed to stop , i smiled at other person and his anger just vanished. we thanked each other and moved .
    roads have lot of tensions, just try to overcome by cool minded-ness and patience.

  17. I think it’s many factors. Being in a hurry causes stress. Driving a vehicle that could kill someone is stressful in a subconscious way. Being responsible for others in your car is stressful. People who don’t follow driving rules cause resentment and anger. Wasting your life away in traffic causes stress. People react with irritation under stress. Oh and then when you are not stressed and just chillin’ people honk at you to hurry up. 😂🤔

    1. Very true! We perceive stress almost every single day of our lives. That has an impact over us and it seeks a way to express itself 🙂

  18. You may be right. I think when we’re alone in a car we feel free to unleash the beast inside us that holds back when things ordinarily upset us and piss us off because we have an audience. When we’re in a car alone, we don’t have an audience (unless the other driver’s window is down and they are close enough to hear us) and so we think we have carte blanche to be an asshole.

  19. The title of your blog post grabbed my attention immediately! Wow, how easily we turn into perfectionists when we’re driving. I’m so guilty of cursing and complaining at the slightest error someone makes and yet if someone hoots at me when I make a mistake I get livid!

    Us human beings are such strange creatures…I like you explained it tho, it makes so much sense and from heron I’ll try my best to not let driving bring out the worst in me.

    1. Thank you very much for reading and for commenting! If you manage to grab a better control of this behavior, please let me know how you did it!

  20. I think, it is because of ‘us’ group and ‘them’ group. We tend to be protective of those who mean something close to us. Since, car is both an expense, a necessity and a shelter that you are physically close to, it qualifies as ‘us’ group. Hence, the reaction when a ‘them’ group comes too close.

  21. I’m a born and bred Chicagoan. I was taught how to drive aggressively in order to “survive” the other aggressive drivers around me. It is a part of who I am. When driving in that aggressive big city environment, shellfish, passive aggressive, driving is just par for the course. Iowan’s are very passive drivers. We’ve lived in a small Iowa city for almost 3 years now and I find their passive driving incredibly irritating! I mean who enters a highway doing 40mph? Are they trying to get themselves and everyone behind them killed? That’s the aggressive driver in me. My husband mentioned the other day that he was still having a hard time with Iowan drivers. My comeback “I learned how to drive in a big city. I have spent almost all of my adult life driving like an insane Chicagoan. I don’t see that see that ever changing.” The odd thing, I don’t see Iowans getting spitting mad while driving like I do. They just tool along, almost completely obvious to the drivers around them. They have phrase out here, “Iowa nice” Iowans are generally very nice people, it has taught me that my little cage of comfort is the most obvious place for my big city mean girl to come out.

    1. This is very interesting! So your driving style is a way to protect yourself and “survive” among other aggressive drivers and you were thought to be like this. However, I wasn’t thought to be an aggressive driver. I was thought the opposite of that and I still get aggressive when driving.

      1. Yep. I was actually taught to be an aggressive driver. I’ve realized since moving to Iowa that Chicagoans are not nice people. LOL. We are a rather aggressive population that tends to resort to yelling when people don’t do what we feel is socially acceptable and ignore everyone who acts in a way we find socially acceptable. And we a have a take no BS attitude about us.

  22. Wow…I can think of a number of people after reading this!!!

    I feel that the sense of control we gain while driving can be scary. It leads us to believe we are in charge and everything in our hands is under control. So even when we make a mistake, we are quick to blame others (other drivers). It brings out the worst in us for we snap easily and fear letting go of that control.

  23. I think driving brings out the worst in us because most people who are driving are in a hurry to get somewhere. Anything that slows us down is a threat to getting there on time. In an ideal world we’d leave early and everyone would be completely cool about late arrivals. That takes out the stress and a lot of aggressiveness.

    The act of driving is itself stressful. Sure, I’m just sitting there in climate controlled comfort and listening to beautiful music. But I’m still not where I want to be. If it were so wonderful I’d go out and sit in the car in my driveway for recreation. There is always something I want or need to do instead. I mean, who enjoys the commute to work for its own sake? It is like cutting a piece out of your life and burning it and is why people often time their commutes to be just in time. That puts an additional bit of edge on our mental states.

    Now, you may be in an armored box but who says that makes you invulnerable? No rational person feels that way. A minor bump or scratch and your in the hole for the time to exchange information and whatever your deductible is. Even if you are a careful driver, you still have to worry about the other yahoo. The insurance company is going to try to make it out to be your fault so your rates may go up. Reasonable people are nervous in congested traffic.

    Now we can add to this the passive-aggressive drivers who appear to pull into a lane merely because you had the courtesy to signal what you were going to do. Or drive at the speed limit when flow of traffic is well over. This is a real thing. I am minded of a study done by some traffic safety group where they timed how long it took people to pull out of a parking spot. Seems it took like 50% longer to pull out if someone was waiting for it. This kind of thing is really irritating.

    And the drivers who are simply passive and slow traffic down, making you late. And the drivers who are simply aggressive and cause adrenaline surges as they ride your bumper or cut in front of you or don’t yield when they ought to. All that adds up to more little spurts of adrenaline.

    Each contribution to time urgency and each little spurt of adrenaline pushes the reasonable driver to be closer to an unreasonable driver. And that is why a nice guy turns into an angry driver.

  24. I believe you got the answer to your question through your journey of writing it out. We can be 100% honest about every single reaction with very minimal probability of consequences. Nobody is going to tell you how you don’t measure up when you spew the venom while driving alone.

  25. I’ve always been a bit of a free spirit and a rebel, but when it comes to driving I see most of the rules/laws as essential to everyone’s safety. When I see people purposefully breaking those rules I get irate. Continuing to make left hand turns after they’ve lost the arrow is a major peeve. People who pass me on the left by crossing the double yellow line, to get to the turning lane way up at the corner I find both selfish and stupid. Especially, because I’m patiently waiting to get to that same turning lane. There are other instances where their selfishness is a big safety issue, but I have my own blog posts to write today!

    Take care! — YUR

  26. I don’t consider myself an aggressive driver, but a defensive one. After living in Chicago and driving on the Dan Ryan you learn to take your driving very seriously. I try to keep out of the way of those who don’t seem to use turn signals, or fly in front of you without a notice or turn over 3 lanes to get off without warning or they will see you coming in the flow of traffic and turn into traffic knowing they should not have. Living in Florida has taught me that my God given talents of driving that were learned in Chicago are life saving for me. The people here just do not know how to drive. I suppose that issue arises from the fact that you have people coming here from everywhere—I don’t know… Beautiful weather—horrible drivers.

  27. We do the same on the phone,emailing or texting. It is only a voice, a script on the other end and we forget that there is a person attached to it. Some say that love is when you can look into someone’s eyes and really SEE them (as another sentient being). Its not so easy to be a loving person when you don’t have those visual cues. But it is not impossible. We just have to work harder at it.

      1. Isn’t that what is being brought to our attention right now? We are all sentient beings worthy of respect and kindness. Change begins with each of us. We can only model what we wish to see from others. It is possible. Can we understand that others are also going through stress and change, much of which we may never truly understand. That is where compassion and grace comes in.
        Sorry if I’m on my soapbox. I just finished posting my weekly blog and am still ‘in the zone.’ Be well, and thank you for bringing this subject to our attention. And know that you CAN make a difference, every day.

  28. This reminds me of a Blog I wrote, hmm I think it is entitled, A Frustrating Force. Gonna go look for it. It’s so true, so often the sharp words come out of my mouth and it is bitter! I always catch myself though and say, “who are you?” I was able to stop behaving this way for several years anyway (which is what I wrote about). I think I know why I got back to this way of being but I really need to transform it again. I’m a small time blogger, not sure of the rules. Am I allowed to post it here on your page for you? ….

      1. Thank you very much for reading and for sharing your thoughts!
        It seems that there are times when we forget who we are (or maybe our basic instincts take over). Those moments can do the biggest harm…

  29. This was not only a GREAT article, with thoughtful insights, it got GREAT comments with same. Years ago, when we lived in Boston, an article appeared in the Boston Globe about a commuter’s insight with aggressive driving. He said he finally realized that in every incident where he’d lay on the horn, he could use his brakes instead. It really made me think about my own driving habits. (Hey, commuting in Boston was a nightmare!) 🙂
    Reading this today made me re-evaluate the bad habits I’ve fallen back into. I’m glad you wrote this, and I’m grateful for your readers who added to the depth of understanding for me. Thank you!

    1. Thank you very much for reading and for your kind words! There are so many things we do and we don’t realize the impact until it’s too late… I hope that articles like this can bring more insights about how we behave and maybe we can do something before the behavior itself and not after.

  30. Modern humans have developed a certain impatience, and tend to do many things as quickly as possible. Get them done, out of the way, on to the next thing. No one lingers and slows down to enjoy a task like, say, taking the garbage out. We get to it and get it done, especially if it’s stinky or we have to dash through the cold to get to the can.

    We see this in many places where people must intersect, queue, or compete for service, such as check-out lines in a store, or a wait list for the next available table at a restaurant. Humans have grown very uncomfortable with idle time, and will fidget or grumble or race to the next open cash register.

    When I did safety training on the matter of road etiquette, I used the example of a line at a cash register. Would you literally run to beat someone to the place in line? Would you do one of these? (I elbow my way in front of one of the guys, as if we’re opponents playing basketball), and elbow your way ahead of someone? Are you not likely to tell an elder person, or someone with only a couple of items to go ahead of you? Would you push your cart right up into the personal space of the person ahead of you? Crowd them to urge them to move faster? Then why do you shut this civility off when you get behind the wheel? Diving in front of people to beat them to the toll booth, passing on the right because you’re impatient, tailgating and intimidating.

    The thing is, when we’re on the road we don’t see ANY OTHER HUMANS. We see a lot of big iron boxes that are competing for the place in line. I can crowd a box. I can elbow a box. I can place a box in danger with my behavior.

    There was a time, long ago when the horseless carriage was making its way into our lives, that people drove as fast AS THEY NEEDED TO. Nowadays, because of the isolation of the cabin, the ease and speed at which our cars can accelerate, underscored by an overblown sense of security that brakes will always stop us, airbags will protect us and “hit me and I’ll sue you”, people try to go AS FAST AS THEY CAN. Everywhere. Drive any road, and people are not at the speed limit (certainly not below it). They are 5 MPH above it, they are 10 MPH above it. AS FAST AS THEY CAN they catch up to the iron block that is impeding their progress. Like Tetris, they need the block to move. They don’t even know they’re tailgating sometimes.

    One day I was driving like everyone else. I told that iron box that they made an unsafe lane change. I told another iron box they were stupid for making such a move. I told another iron box that there are rules for reasons. Then I heard myself. “Don’t talk to the cars, they can’t hear you.” I started. Then I brought my zen, and focused on the fact that these were not cars on the road, these were not iron boxes, these were not Tetris blocks; THESE ARE PEOPLE.

    Then I realized how each individual is locked in their own box, insulated from one another. Still, we are all in this together. We all want to get down the road. To get home or to the store or the start of our shift. “You’re not fooling me.” I said to the people-filled boxes. “I can see your light.” and I focused on the beautiful and perfect light that every living thing shines with. “Don’t talk to the cars. Those are people.”

    There’s no beating it or changing it, nor even a way to protect yourself from the serious danger some drivers place us in. I’m old, and don’t mind moving over to let the young in-a-hurry people fly by in the fast lane. Someone bumped my car as I was moving to the right, into the slow lane. They had to get by me in such a hurry they tried to squeeze around to the left, nicked my rear fender, and just kept going.

    Know how I drive now? I drive at AN APPROPRIATE SPEED. Not slow and draggy, an old man blocking traffic, but also not pedal-to-the-metal as fast as possible. A PRUDENT speed. A PLEASANT speed. A SAFE speed. I drive now in self-defense. I move over to the left on the big highway when the hypnotized person behind me is glued to my bumper. I wait for them to go by, then move back to the right lane. Sort of passing myself on someone else’s behalf. When someone dives in front of me, ten feet from my bumper at 65 MPH, I back off the gas until there’s a safe distance. No crowding, no swearing, no anger. It’s a little annoying maybe, but really not worth fretting over.

    This will be mostly solved by autonomous vehicles. In fifty years, maybe less, all the vehicles will be autonomous. You won’t be ALLOWED to operate the vehicle (partly because we’ve proven we can’t seem to stop ourselves from turning into idiots at the wheel). Many folks have already begun their resistance rant. “What if the computer makes a mistake?” Answer: Humans make 40,000 mistakes per day on our highways, and they maim and kill themselves and others in the process. A computer could hardly be worse.

    I watch the demo on 60 Minutes of the semi-truck with autonomous driver. On the road, we see a person cut the truck off, dive into its lane barely a car’s length away. Immediately, robot snaps its robot foot off the gas pedal, remains in the lane, waits for the safety space to open to 5 car lengths, then resumes its speed.
    The human driver (and any driver, not just a trucker) would have responded this way: First, human would not only NOT slow down, but is likely to keep their speed, willing to crowd the interloper to demonstrate the unsafe and inconvenient manner that has offended you. Human might blow the horn, which is not really harmful, necessarily. Human might yell, might even swear, might even do so out an open window. Human might be so annoyed they react almost instantly to dive to the left and get out from behind the block. The truck starts to move left before the signal light comes on, and is slightly over the lines to the next lane when human sees the Mini-Cooper in the blind spot. The truck swerves hurriedly back to the other lane while the Cooper slams on its brakes. The human driver of the truck will be distracted and motivated by the anger and frustration for a while. Maybe a few minutes, maybe hours.

    And that’s why robot cars are better than human cars.

    Gosh, I’ve made a post of a comment.

    Seek peace, and drive responsibly,


    1. Wow! Thank you very much for this amazing comment! Yeah, I also believe that robot cars are much better that human cars and I’ll think we’ll get there soon.

  31. Great post and it is a very true observation! There was an Irish comedian over here named Dave Allen, who talked of this very same thing – he pointed out, that imagine if pedestrians on the street carried on and acted in the same way that drivers did towards each other – it would be out and out warfare!!

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