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The psychology of driving

Psychology of driving

What do individual personality traits and psychological theory have to say about your ability to drive safely? Get the expert view...

In the field of psychology there are five broad dimensions of personality, known as the 'Big Five'

There are over 34 million registered vehicles in the UK and their owners represent a considerable mix of driving styles and personalities, all jostling for space on increasingly cramped roads.

Boy racers, elderly motorists, newbies and female drivers are all subject to a raft of derogatory and unfounded stereotypes, but your ability to drive safely and considerately has nothing to do with such labels.

Instead, experts point to individual personality traits and psychological theory to determine influences on driving behaviour.

Personality types

In the field of psychology there are five broad dimensions of personality, known as the 'Big Five'.

An individual's propensity towards these characteristics in daily life is likely to be a strong indicator of their driving behaviour on the road. They are: Advanced driving courses

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

People considered to be open individuals are inherently curious and adventurous, but those low on the openness scale are likely to exhibit cautious and consistent behaviour, making them less likely to take risks on the road.

The conscientiousness scale ranges from high efficiency, where individuals are likely to exhibit dutiful, disciplined driving behaviour, to carelessness, where drivers are more likely to be inconsiderate to other road users.

Did you know...?

  • Aggressive negative driving is known as reptilian driving
  • Supportive positive driving is known as cortical driving

Those displaying high levels of extraversion are inclined towards 'show-off' driving and risk taking, whereas those low on the extraversion scale are liable to exhibit restrained road-use behaviour.

In a driving context, agreeableness denotes the likelihood that the driver will be compassionate and co-operative with other motorists.

Those low on agreeableness are, for example, less likely to allow another driver to merge into their lane, or to wait for a driver to park before pulling around them.

Finally, the neuroticism scale ranges from apprehension to security, with drivers in the former category likely to display anger and emotional sensitivity when driving, and those in the latter displaying positivity and confidence.Van insurance

Accident-prone personalities

According to some car insurers, certain specific personality types are more likely to have road accidents than others.

Individuals with a broad-minded approach to life are billed as 'impulsive', more likely to make up the rules as they go along, which is not always conducive to safe driving.

Overly neurotic drivers are more easily distracted and more likely to react badly to stress, which affects reaction times and judgement.

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Meanwhile, fun-loving chatty people - labelled 'sensation seeking' by the research - have lower attention spans, and are most prone to accidents on boring stretches of road and on motorways.

Finally, 'me, me, me' types - low on the conscientiousness scale - are likely to ignore the consequences of their actions and flout road rules.

This makes them more likely to end up in an accident, whereas those low on agreeableness are more likely to have an accident due to their hostility and aggressiveness. Telematics car insurance

Attitudes on the road

Our attitude to the world around us - and the people in it - has a huge bearing on our driving behaviour.

According to DrDriving.org, every time we encounter an obstacle, hazard or other motorist on the road, our brains assimilate the event's information.

One of two outcomes is then produced; aggressive negative driving (known as reptilian driving), or supportive positive driving (known as cortical driving).

For example, if you're stuck in a traffic jam, reptilian drivers might think: "I bet someone up ahead has created this mess. Everyone's driving like an idiot," whereas cortical drivers are more likely to think: "I'm feeling very impatient today. Everything is annoying me."

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Similarly, if another motorist is trying to merge into a lane of traffic, a reptilian driver might think: "No chance, I need to get ahead. Move out of my way."

A cortical driver, meanwhile, might conclude: "This traffic is annoying, but there's nothing I can do about it. Other people need to get to their destinations, too."

These two driving types can be fluid; drivers are not always one or the other. A bad day can put you into a negative driving mode, just as good news can reinforce positive driving.


Our perceptions of ourselves and of external authority (speed limits, stop signs, etc) will also affect the way we drive.

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For example, some people may consider themselves to be very good drivers.

This perceived confidence may then mean they're more willing to take risks on the road, or to drive faster, because they believe they can 'handle it'.

A disregard for authority also influences driving behaviours.

People may think, for example, that many traffic rules have to be ignored in order to ensure good traffic flow, or that speeding is ok because the limits are too restrictive.

The justification effect

According to the National University of Ireland's School of Psychology, people who frequently take risks on the road often use a variety of excuses in a bid to justify their actions.

'It's ok to speed to get past Sunday drivers', 'it's ok to take risks if there's no-one else involved' and 'breaking a few minor rules does not make me a bad driver' are examples of common methods of justification.

This is where the conscience is attempting to reduce negative feelings associated with the action.

Remember, if you have to justify it to yourself, you may have to end up justifying it in a court of law!

By Rachel England