One of the trickiest behaviors to uproot is aggressive driving. It doesn’t have to be full-blown road rage to be risky. Tailgating, speeding, and cutting off other vehicles all can also boost the chances of collisions.
But what drives aggressive behavior? And what can fleet managers do about it? To help answer those questions, we turned to Steve Albrecht, a former officer with the San Diego Police Department and now an expert on workplace safety.
Albrecht, who has written about road rage for Psychology Today magazine, points to five sources of aggressive driving:
When people are in their vehicles, they feel they own the territory around them, Albrecht said. That creates a series of behaviors where people use their vehicles as blocking devices. “They’re saying, ‘You have to respect my space.’ And when they feel you are not respecting their space, they tailgate you, cut you off, or block you,” said Albrecht, who witnessed many of these instances, and their deadly consequences, during his 15 years on the force. “That’s all territoriality.”
Related to territoriality is a sense of entitlement. Drivers who regard the area around their vehicles as personal space can sometimes feel entitled to exact their revenge if they feel their space has been violated. “It’s the same mentality of people who think that they get to throw a bottle at the umpire for a bad call because they paid $50 for their game ticket,” Albrecht said.
The anger people experience while driving is distinctly different than anger felt in other circumstances. “It’s a more primitive anger,” Albrecht said. “You talk to people afterwards, and they say something like, ‘I just saw red.’ They completely miss the opportunity to control their anger.”
4. No Sense of Consequence
Now we’ve got a volatile cocktail of territoriality, entitlement, and primitive anger. But whereas people find ways to rein in their rage in other situations where they feel slighted, there’s a greater tendency for people to let loose when they’re behind the wheel and feeling a false sense of security from the “armor” of their vehicles. “People don’t seem to get that there could be consequences to their actions when they’re in the middle of road rage,” Albrecht said. “When they’re in jail, they feel badly then. But when they’re in the middle of it, they don’t seem to have a sense of future consequences.”
For professional drivers, the most likely reason for aggressive driving is habit, Albrecht. “They’ll justify it by saying, ‘I’ve done these shortcuts so often, and nothing bad has happened.’ They start to shorten the space between themselves and the vehicle in front of them. They drive a little faster. They cut corners to get the job done more quickly,” he said. “There’s no sense of impending consequence, because they’ve driven this way for months or years without a major accident, so it doesn’t seem like a risk.”
Based on these five behavioral factors, Albrecht recommends the following remedies to deal with aggressive driving:
Have checklists. The tendency to slide and cut corners is why pilots have checklists, Albrecht said. As with commercial drivers, pilot error can have disastrous consequences. A checklist helps to ensure all the necessary safety checks, no matter how mundane, are performed. For aggressive driving, creating a simple procedure, with steps to build a buffer when another vehicle cuts your driver off, can help prevent a tit-for-tat escalation, for example.
Reward good behavior. Reinforce good behavior by giving safe drivers bonuses or other compensation on a regular basis, linking the reward with the specific driving behavior you want to encourage, such as following distance.
Develop accountability. Albrecht talks about an experience he had while he was in the police force. For several years, “if you got in an accident in a police vehicle, it was a big deal,” he recalled. “As a result, officers didn’t take risks. But when the department … gave only verbal warnings, accident rates went up.” The conclusion: Without a way to hold employees accountable, change is much more difficult, Albrecht said.
Create a safety culture. Supervisors can’t be everywhere at once. A safety culture helps to motivate employees to do the right thing for its own sake. “With a safety culture, it becomes an ‘us’ issue, rather than a ‘me’ issue,” Albrecht said. “Everyone is an ambassador. That’s a different mindset. When we take time to create a culture, there’s a collective desire to do well.”