Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
We're looking at you, erratic lane weavers.
Jerky driver behavior – also known as the cause of road rage – comes in a breathtaking variety of forms. There’s improper speeding (sub-classified as i. people who drive like they’re drag-racing, ii. people who drive slowwwwly like they’ve nowhere to go, and iii. people who maddeningly vacillate between the two extremes). You’ve also got your tailgaters, no definition necessary. And your scumbags who flout traffic signals, your lane cutters, your weavers, your cell phone talkers, your erratic brakers, your middle-finger flickers and your selfish creeps who will not for the life of them let you merge into that lane.
This taxonomy, more or less, comes from a recent study published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention that mined driver gripes from the weird world of websites that invite people to vent their road rage online (with the very satisfying inclusion of license plate numbers). Christine Wickens, a post-doctoral fellow with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada, analyzed 5,624 complaints, made between 1999 and 2007 in North America, on the website RoadRagers.com, which sadly no longer appears to be live.
She and her colleagues individually coded every one of them for specific offending behavior in an attempt to determine if such online portals have real research value, and what they might tell us about how to improve driver training and safety. The first answer is, apparently, yes. The patterns the researchers detected in these complaints mirrored some of what previous studies have shown. For instance, the most common obnoxious behavior that riles other drivers appears to be weaving and cutting lanes:
The researchers coded all of the complaints this way:
For example, the complaint “tailgating, trying to pass on the shoulder, cut off cars, honking horn, flipping the bird, excessive speed” was classified as tailgating (B), improper lane usage (Ci), weaving/cutting (Cii), perceived hostile driver display (Hi), and speeding/racing (Ai).
A "perceived hostile display" is not to be confused with a "perceived violent display," defined in the paper thusly:
Behavioural displays of discontent that are more intense than verbal commentary or gestures that are not included elsewhere in the coding scheme (e.g., chasing/following, getting out of the vehicle to verbally or physically argue, waving a firearm/blunt instrument/weapon, and throwing threatening objects).
This web database is likely flawed thanks to human error (or laziness) in tagging the incidents by date, time and location. But in other ways, peeking onto angry-driver message boards might tell us things not recorded by official police data on aggressive driving. For one thing, police call centers don’t typically record "obscene gestures and unkind language" since neither are technically illegal. They’re integral ingredients to road rage, though, particularly to the kind that perpetuates itself as ticked-off drivers take it upon themselves to teach each other a lesson.
All of this is a serious subject of academic study because aggressive driving is estimated to play a role in about half of all vehicle collisions. These researchers propose that the above hierarchy of offensive driving behaviors may be useful in educating new drivers about the road crimes they should most consciously try to avoid. And they suggest that we could improve driver safety by learning more about why drivers behave this way in the first place.
"Although datasets like complaints to police departments or online websites do not provide insight into the offensive driver’s motivation, online websites may provide insight into the victim driver’s perceptions of the perpetrator’s motivations,” the authors write. "The victim driver’s perceptions may be just as valuable in understanding the development of driver anger and subsequent retaliatory regression."
If nothing else, we admire them for thinking that bad driving behavior is an epidemic we could aspire to address.