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Why Are Some Drivers Aggressive?

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

It does not escape the notice of most people that certain types of vehicle are likely to be driven aggressively more than others. Research shows that the people who have high-end, fast, German cars are the main culprits.

Often, this is the result of aggressive driving.

Often, this is the result of aggressive driving.

Aggression and Driving

Ideally, driving is a cooperative venture not a competitive one. We rely on one another to obey the rules so we don’t crash into each other; we can’t both have the same piece of real estate at the same time. But, there is a class of driver, thankfully small, that sees driving as a winner-take-all activity.

The behaviours exhibited by these aggressive types include:

  • leaning on the horn and flashing their lights at people they believe are driving too slowly;
  • tailgating and speeding;
  • running red lights and stop signs; and,
  • yelling obscenities and giving rude gestures.

Do you know anyone who does these things? If you do, take the bus.

Reckless Drivers

Jan-Erik Lönnqvist is a professor of social psychology at the University of Helsinki, Finland. In common with many people, he had observed that the drivers of BMWs and Audis disobey traffic rules more than others.

He says “I had noticed that the ones most likely to run a red light, not give way to pedestrians and generally drive recklessly and too fast were often the ones driving fast German cars.”

So, what’s going on here? Professor Lönnqvist decided to try to find out. Was it being behind the wheel of a powerful and expensive vehicle that caused people to drive aggressively? Or, was it something in the character of such drivers that drew them to buying high status, fast cars?

A Compilation of Idiots Doing Idiotic Things

The Five Factor Model

Prof. Lönnqvist and his colleagues interviewed 1,892 people about their choice of vehicle and matched this to their character traits.

They applied the Five Factor Model, which is a framework that helps researchers establish the personalities of subjects. The five characteristics are:

  • Openness to experience―willingness to accept new ideas, high levels of curiosity and sell-awareness;
  • Conscientiousness―being organized, reliable, and hard-working;
  • Extroversion/introversion―being outgoing and gregarious, or being solitary and subdued;
  • Agreeableness―polite, trusting, affectionate, and kind; and,
  • Neuroticism―being self-doubting, depressive, and with low emotional stability.

Psychology Today notes that “Using questionnaire-based testing, psychologists measure the degree to which each of the traits is individually manifest.”

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Some say this is a bit of a blunt instrument and doesn’t properly reflect the almost infinite nuances that make up an individual’s character, but it does give a general picture of a person’s behaviour.

How often have you seen an aggressive driver and said “There’s never a cop around when you need one?” Well, here comes one now.

How often have you seen an aggressive driver and said “There’s never a cop around when you need one?” Well, here comes one now.

Character of Poor Drivers

What the Finnish researchers found will not come as a huge surprise. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) comments on the research and points the finger at the road hogs that spoil the days of so many others. They are “self-centered men who are argumentative, stubborn, disagreeable and unempathetic.”

Prof. Lönnqvist adds “These personality traits explain the desire to own high-status products, and the same traits also explain why such people break traffic regulations more frequently than others.”

These are people who have a very high opinion of themselves and want everybody else to understand how magnificent they are: “I am the Master of the Universe and rules don’t apply to me.”

These folk are narcissists.

Anonymity is another factor. Psychological scientist Patricia Ellison-Potter carried out a study for the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. She found that people are inclined to drive more aggressively when they are not very visible, that is in a car with heavily tinted windows. In a convertible with the top down they behave themselves.

The Finnish study found that these characteristics apply only to men; they were not found in women. The AAAS comments that “Lönnqvist has no clear answer as to why this is the case. One possibility is that cars simply do not have the same significance as status symbols for women.”

Inconsiderate Drivers by Brand

A 2018 study run by Dave TV in the United Kingdom confirms the University of Finland findings.

Survey says: “A total of 2,000 Brits were surveyed and 56 percent of them rated BMW M3 drivers as the most inconsiderate above those who drove a Range Rover (48 percent), an Audi TT (43 percent), and a Mercedes-Benz C-class.”

Classic BMW M3 driver behaviour; parking in a no parking zone.

Classic BMW M3 driver behaviour; parking in a no parking zone.

Beemer drivers fair no better in a report in The Express newspaper: “A staggering 82 percent of respondents said they disliked BMW drivers as they were voted to have the worst reputation of any road vehicle.” In addition, a third of the people quizzed said they would not even date someone with a German set of wheels.

Back in Helsinki, Professor Lönnqvist found that not all BMW, Audi, and Mercedes drivers are obnoxious morons. A surprising number of conscientious people buy these brands. These folk have a self image about being reliable, so, says Lönnqvist, they “purchase a car that will last and is high-performing.”

Bonus Factoids

  • GasBuddy is a fuel-saving app that has 70 million downloads. There is a feature that users can opt into that monitors driving habits, such as jackrabbit starts and heavy breaking. By analyzing this data, GasBuddy has come up with a list of the U.S. cities with the most aggressive drivers:
  1. Los Angeles
  2. Philadelphia
  3. Sacramento
  4. Atlanta
  5. San Francisco
  6. San Diego
  7. Orlando
  8. Detroit
  9. Austin
  10. Las Vegas
  • The city with the least aggressive drivers is Minneapolis-St. Paul.
  • According to the World Health Organization, traffic collisions are the cause of 1.33 million deaths world wide every year.


  • “Big 5 Personality Traits.” Psychology Today, undated.
  • “Owners of High-Status Cars Are on a Collision Course with Traffic.” EurekAlert!, January 29, 2020.
  • “BMW Owners Voted Most Inconsiderate Drivers on the Road, Finds Survey.” Olivia Petter, The Independent, January 10, 2018.
  • “The Most Disliked Drivers in the UK Own this Type of Car - Do You Drive the Popular Motor?” Luke Chillingsworth, The Express, October 3, 2019.
  • “Why Do so Many Bad Drivers Have Luxury Cars? A New Study Blames ‘Disagreeable’ Men.” May Warren, Toronto Star, January 31, 2020.
  • “These 10 Cities Have the Most Aggressive Drivers in the Nation.” Nathan Bomey, USA TODAY, December 26, 2019.
  • “ ‘Outta My Way!’ Narcissism Is Linked to Aggressive Driving.” Tracey Stein, Psychology Today, January 25, 2019.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

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