The science behind our road rage — and how swearing (and complaining about the drivers who made us swear) makes it worse.
Everybody hates traffic, but most of us love to talk about it.
It used to be a daily ritual for me. With the piecemeal dismantling of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seattle’s ongoing population boom, the commute from my West Seattle neighborhood mushroomed into an ordeal that can take almost an hour on a bad day. By the time I reached The Seattle Times’ South Lake Union headquarters, I was in a foul mood and eager to swap tales of outrage with my colleagues.
When editors and I sat down to plan this week’s traffic story, the discussion quickly devolved into a gripe session about school-zone speeders, phone-obsessed pedestrians and left-lane hogs.
As a longtime science reporter, I realized a lot of my reactions to traffic issues were irrational, and I wanted to understand their source. Why did I feel a flash of irritation when another car zoomed past me? What made me want to box in that Porsche driver? Why did I get pissed off if another driver failed to give me a courtesy wave when I let him merge?
I figured if I could dissect my own motivations, I might be less of a puppet to my baser instincts. And because traffic is such a shared experience, I thought other drivers would find it equally interesting.
The biggest surprise for me in reporting the story was the realization that constant complaining can actually make things worse. As psychologists explained, venting and denigrating other drivers is like throwing gas on the cognitive fires that fuel stress, anxiety and anger. Given how much I love to complain, that might help explain why I so often feel mentally fried behind the wheel.
There’s a lot about traffic psychology that’s not in today’s story — like the perception biases that make it seem like the other lanes are moving faster, and the way seemingly innocuous distractions, such as a hands-free phone conversation, can dangerously narrow our focus. If you’d like to learn more, I suggest Tom Vanderbilt’s excellent, and wonky, book “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us”).