Whether it’s a great day, a really sucky one or just a boring one, sometimes it is nice to go on a drive. It’s like taking a walk but better because you don’t have to strain your feet all that much or be bothered by the weather. It’s something you can do without even thinking twice. But did you ever wonder if those emotions you’re carrying have an impact on your driving?
Turns out, they do.
The Impact of Individual Emotions
A while back, some researchers tried to find out more about this. So, they did a survey of almost 2,000 people and asked them questions on the subject. Most people believed that negative emotions like anger and sadness do more harm than happiness and excitement. But the researchers found that happy or sad, the result is the same when it comes to driving. Because whether you are feeling good about yourself or kind of trashy, you are distracted the same.
Anger and Aggression
This is a very common emotion and something we experience on a daily basis. In fact, just being on the road with unruly drivers can make you angry. It’s a bit difficult to escape this one.
It causes changes in our body like increased heart rate and blood pressure, etc. When you’re on the road, this can be a dangerous thing for you and those around you. Some studies have shown that traffic violations can cause frustration in the driver. I know that feeling!
Studies conducted in a simulator have shown that drivers were a lot angrier when they had to slow down because of other drivers or pedestrians. Turns out, people really like to maintain their pace. The results also pointed out that you don’t have to be angry when you turn on the ignition. Other drivers’ behavior can also piss you off to a point of distraction and danger.
Here’s another point. Research has shown that drivers react differently to verbal and physical aggression from other drivers. Turns out, if the other driver is verbally aggressive, you might stop at just getting angry. But if they are physically aggressive you might just be provoked into returning the favor. Although, don’t do that. It’s not helpful.
In the same way, if someone was driving recklessly, a lot of drivers seem to be able to tolerate that even though it is a legal violation. But if the other driver is voluntarily being aggressive, that gets a lot of other drivers to do the same. If you think about it, that street is going to be a mess, especially if there is a traffic jam. Good lord!
Of course, these responses vary depending on the situation, age and gender of any given driver. For instance, drivers in the UK were more riled up about reckless and impatient driving. But those in Finland got mad at inconsiderate driving. Also, unsurprisingly, men and young people are more likely to react to these situations even though older drivers are more sensitive to some situations.
In fact, a study by Deffenbacher and others (2003) found that those who are angry tend to drive faster and take more risks. You see the problem with this, right?
Fear and Anxiety
Now, there is a lot of debate on the difference between these two emotions. But here’s what everyone seems to agree upon. Fear is a basic emotion and it creates physical changes like high heart rate and low skin temperature. In fact, fear is also uncontrollable in some situations. If you are terrified of spiders, you can’t control your fear right away. You can train to manage it but in that first instance, it’s there. Fear also leads to our fight or flight response.
Anxiety is a bit more tricky. Some say it is a reaction to an unresolved fear-related situation. This means, when you don’t have a reaction to a scary situation, your mind and body feel tense and uneasy. This causes worry and you can lose focus. You see where I’m going with this?
There was a study where people with low, medium and high anxiety were given a task. They were distracted with neutral, positive, physically and socially threatening stimuli. In that study, those with low and medium levels of anxiousness (not anxiety as a disorder) were less distracted than those with high levels of anxiousness. They also reacted strongly to physically threatening words. Now imagine driving along that guy on the road.
Of course, this depends on how vulnerable you are as a person and if you generally have any anxiety disorder. But this is an important thing to note because driving is a high-attention task. A lot of these reactions also depend on the specific driving situation, traffic density and the behavior of the others on the road.
British-German psychologist, Hans Eysenck argues that anxiety varies from person to person. But philosopher and psychologist Shlomo Shoham said that anxious drivers react very quickly to certain road situations and it leads them to commit traffic violations.
So, however we define anxiety and whatever personality traits you have, anxious driving is a terrible idea. Some drivers do become very cautious if driving situations made them anxious. But that also depends on the complexity of the task itself.
So, what we know for sure is that anxiety has an impact on your ability to process information. That has a direct effect on your driving. Whether you become more careful or reckless due to anxiety depends on the person and their ability to cope with the situation.
Sadness and Rumination
When we talk about sadness there are so many categories in there. It could be because of a temporary or permanent loss, could have any time interval—recent to childhood trauma—could be your own or the grief of a loved one. It could be mild uneasiness to full-fledged tears and screams.
These feelings could lead to guilt, low self-esteem, a change in appetite and sleep. These in turn cause lack of energy, sleep, trouble being able to think clearly and whatnot.
All of these things without a doubt are bad for driving. Your attention is somewhere else, your focus is shaken, you’re lost in thought and it makes you slow. If you didn’t know it already, that is the recipe for disaster.
Sadness interferes with the amount of attention you can give to a task. There aren’t too many studies that connect sadness and driving. But here’s what we can learn from the available ones.
Unlike anger and anxiety, the connection here is not so direct. Other drivers and traffic situations can’t really make you sad. But, talking to someone about something like a loved one’s death can trigger sadness. Even sad music can create a withdrawn mood and prompt rumination. So the connection here is indirect.
Some studies have found that emotional problems did not lead to any kind of risky driving. But some studies identified that depression is a negative emotion and that can lead to road accidents, especially in young people. That’s because sadness because of depression in no way inspires you to drive cautiously.
Grief has the same result. A lot of drivers who lost someone (ever!) said that sometimes when grief took over, they didn’t even know what they were doing. But scientifically, we only know that there is an indirect connection and it cannot be ignored.
Research tells us that depressed drivers have had a slow response time leading to accidents. This is a result of indecision and also not being able to react because of the crippling aspects of the disease itself.
All of us have our own way of responding to bad news, whether it happened when you were eight or while you’re in the car. But what about the good stuff? How distracting is that?
This is a neglected area because positive emotions usually are about satisfaction and lead to more appraisal. But, we all know that if a sad song can get to us and distract us, we can get a little carried away with a happy tune too.
What we know about this aspect is that a study (by Brodsky in 2002) showed that fast tempo music led to increased energy and excitement. But that also led to an increase in the mean speed and led to a number of crashes and traffic violations. So, we know that positive emotions can be bad too even if a lot of studies are limited to the impact of music on the driver.
Another study showed that drivers are prone to tapping their fingers on the steering wheel, singing or whistling. These are extra tasks for the brain and it took away from the attention paid to the road. Now, there aren’t enough studies to make this a strong case but it does have logic, doesn’t it?
Whether you are angry or excited, if you are driving you must try to keep the focus on the road. We now know that if you are angry, your safety is in a lot more danger. If you are anxious, it could go either way. Your driving could be really bad or you could get overly cautious and might just be okay. If you’re sad or depressed, well, it’s not hard to guess that you’ll be very distracted and your driving is very likely to be lousy. Negative emotions are likely to do more harm than positive ones. But all emotions are distracting nonetheless.