Dealing with Road Rage
Exercising Self Control While Driving

Dangerous Emotions Affect Your Driving: Dealing with Road Rage

Updated Oct. 20, 2019

Making safe, risk-reducing driving decisions depends on calmness, presence of mind, logic and the ability to systematically evaluate the driving environment – even in undesirable conditions where things do not go to plan. Human emotions are powerful forces which can easily disrupt this ideal mental state if left unchecked. Think about how many times on a day-to-day basis your emotions affect the choices you make and the way you go about things. Imagine, how easy it would be to live a successful, productive and efficient life without emotions getting in the way.

Just as emotions can lead you to make stupid decisions in your personal life, at work or in school, they can lead you to make stupid and often dangerous decisions behind the wheel. We can’t get rid of our emotions – and we wouldn’t want to! However, we can and must keep an eye on our emotional state and take steps to stop it impairing our driving ability.

Intense emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety and despair can adversely affect your driving ability just as much as drugs or alcohol. Any driving decisions you make while under the influence of these emotions are likely to be poorly thought-out and risky. As a driver, it is your responsibility to ensure you are focused, relaxed and free from emotional distractions while in control of your vehicle. If the emotions you are currently experiencing are so strong that you cannot achieve this, do not drive, it is as simple as that.

Dangerous emotions

Below are some of the most dangerous emotions and mental attitudes to have behind the wheel. You may be surprised at some of them!

  • Bitterness or negative preoccupation with another person
  • Overconfidence in your skills as a driver
  • Excessive insecurity about your skills as a driver
  • Frustration or impatience
  • Anger, rage or aggression
  • Love or feelings of infatuation
  • Extreme happiness or excitement
  • Grief
  • Depression or despair

For most new drivers, it is the “positive” emotions in this list that come as the greatest shock. After all, it can be hard to imagine how extreme happiness or love could be a bad thing! The point to take away from this is that any extreme emotion, whether positive or negative, can render you unsafe to drive. You are just as likely to make a fatal error while overjoyed about a college acceptance letter, as you are while festering with rage over an argument with a friend. All strong emotions have the power to distract you from the driving task. Let’s find out a little more about how this occurs.

Emotions and mental driving skills

A mind that is preoccupied by an extreme emotion is less capable of managing other tasks effectively. If you drive while under the influence of anger, sadness, excitement or infatuation, you will:

  • Have a harder time thinking clearly
  • Take longer to make decisions
  • Be more reactive to mistakes made by other drivers
  • Be likely to miss potential hazards
  • Display poorer judgment

As we know, being a safe driver rests on being an attentive driver. While emotionally impaired, it is physically impossible to be properly attentive to the roadway and the driving task.

Emotions and physical driving abilities

Strong emotions do not only exist in the mind. Feelings of extreme happiness, despair, rage and anxiety have a very real physical affect on your body. As such, they can impair your physical driving abilities. For example, a strong emotion may manifest itself physically as:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Shortness of breath
  • An adrenaline-induced “fight or flight” response
  • Heightened blood pressure and poorer circulation
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Exhaustion or sleepiness
  • Stomach pains

Experiencing any of these sensations while driving will distract you and render you less attentive. As a result, you are more likely to miss important information while scanning the road and face an increased risk of collision. Furthermore, these negative physical effects could hinder your ability to control your vehicle effectively. Your hands may slip on the steering wheel, you could have trouble managing speed and you are significantly more likely to stall your engine.

How to avoid extreme emotions

As it is impossible to completely “switch off” our emotional responses, the only way to negate the risk posed by extreme emotions is to avoid driving when you experience them. Minor emotional upsets may be brought under control by taking 10 minutes to calm yourself before driving. Go for a short walk or sit somewhere quiet and focus on your breathing until you feel more in control. If this does not work, you will have to seek alternative transport.

Never drive if you are:

  1. 1

    Experiencing emotional distress caused by something in your personal life, or a situation at work or school.

  2. 2

    Suffering with extreme tension or anxiety.

  3. 3

    Preoccupied to the degree that you cannot focus on driving.

  4. 4

    An inexperienced driver who is emotionally upset.

Driving under any of these conditions is extremely dangerous, as you will be more likely to respond inappropriately to roadway hazards and driving situations. Anxiety may cause you to hesitate and confuse other drivers; anger may lead you to respond aggressively to other people’s mistakes; excessive happiness may cause you to underestimate the risk involved in a particular action.

Practice self-control

While learning to drive, you must practice self-control and work on managing your emotions. Put your feelings to one side when you drive, or do not drive at all. Your life and all its joys and sorrows will be there waiting for you when you’re done driving, or at least they should be, if you stay focused behind the wheel.

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Scanning the Road

The first stage of the SEE system – or indeed any defensive driving strategy – is scanning the roadway to detect potential hazards and upcoming changes, which would require alterations to your driving behavior. This step is crucial, as your ability to make safe driving decisions rests on forming an accurate picture of the situation around your vehicle.

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Identifying Road Hazards

As you become more confident behind the wheel, evaluating hazards and making the necessary adjustments to your driving behavior will become as instinctual as breathing. The only way to ensure you avoid all hazards is to remain attentive and focused on actively scanning the roadway.

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Assessing and Responding to Hazards

Having conducted a search of the roadway to gather visual information, you must then evaluate what you have seen in order to choose an appropriate response. In accordance with the SEE system, the final step will be to execute that response. Your chosen response must reflect the safest course of action for that driving situation.

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Executing a Response

The final step of the SEE system is to execute a response, based on your evaluation of roadway conditions. Your response may involve making a drastic, evasive maneuver – or at the other end of the scale – a minor lane position adjustment. There will also be plenty of occasions where your response will simply be to do nothing, by holding your current course and speed.

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Adopting the Right Attitude

Depending on the actions of other road users and events in the roadway environment, you may experience anxiety, nervousness, frustration or anger. Adopting a positive, self-reflective attitude from the start of your learning journey will help you to keep these emotions in check and stay safe behind the wheel.