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Green Means Go

Green Means Go!
Examining the effects of car stereotyping on road rage

Freny Dessai and Bryan Kennedy

Santa Rosa Junior College

Professor Lynch

May 17, 2001
Green Means Go

The purpose of this experiment is to understand the relationship between car

stereotypes and driver aggression. Car stereotyping is an automatic process whereby

drivers assume the behaviors of drivers around them will correspond with the types of

cars they are driving. It follows that the driver of a more aggressive sports car such as a

BMW would be stereotyped as driving more aggressively, while the driver of a less

aggressive vehicle such as a Volvo would be considered more friendly and courteous.

According to Davies (personal communication, March 30, 2001) of the University of

Leicester in England, this process plays an influential role in car accident reports, in that

witnesses tend to inflate the pre-accident speed of sports cars more than they do sedans.

Based on the results of his yet unpublished study, Davies suggests that “drivers

sometimes make judgments of the likely behavior and intent of other road users based

upon stereotypes of drivers and their cars.” Driver aggression includes the wide range of

violent, dangerous motorist behaviors on the roadways and is commonly referred to by

the media with the alliterative term “road rage”.

There have been several studies conducted regarding road-rage and driver

aggression. Fewer studies, however, have dealt with the issue of car stereotyping and how

it relates to driver aggression. A previous study suggests that driver aggression is

influenced by the status of the car being driven (Doob & Gross, 1968). The participants

for this experiment were introductory psychology students at a college in North Dakota.

At a designated stop sign, a male confederate who drove either a high or low status

vehicle honked at the participant. The following actions of the participant were

measured: rate of acceleration, duration of vacillation, presence of nonverbal gestures,

and horn honk duration and latency. This study showed no sign that the sex of the driver

had any effect on driver aggression, but a link was found between the type of car being

driven and the behavior of the participants, showing that car stereotyping was indeed

taking place.

These car stereotypes are shaped by the mass media in their depiction of cars in

advertisements. Stereotyping is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “a

conventional, oversimplified conception, opinion, or image” of a person, place or thing.

The advertising industry, in their attempt to target a specific consumer market, tend to

oversimplify the product they are pitching by presenting images that appeal only to a

certain type of buyer. These advertising images then work to shape our stereotypes about

the cars we see on the road. In the case of the Mazda Miata, as noted by Bob Garfield of

Advertising Age magazine (1998), the car is advertised as being quicker than it actually

is. Mazda, in their attempt to attract the younger market, project an image of the Miata

that is speedy and aggressive. Because of this, the driver of a Miata would generally be

assumed by other drivers to be more aggressive, whether or not this is actually the case.

Moreover, Connell and Joint (1996) suggest that our cars become a “statement of

ourselves,” in that their shape, size, prestige, and value become an expression of how we

wish others to perceive us. They assert that this is so because a car is such a major

purchase in one’s life, represents one’s access to freedom, and is involved in much of the

one’s livelihood.

In their study on driver aggression, Hennessy and Wiesenthal (1997) attempt to

further define aggression by distinguishing between violent acts of road rage and mild

aggressive behavior. Their results suggest that mild aggressive acts are exhibited by most

people, whereas acts of violent road rage are typically confined to habitually violent

individuals. This was expanded on in a study by Lajunen and Parkerb (1999) on the

psychological triggers of violent aggression. They concluded that, while there are

exceptions, aggressive drivers tend to act more aggressively in their daily lives.

A recent study on red-light running behavior found that more than a third of the

observed traffic light cycles involved at least one red-light violation (Porter & England,

2000). It was also noted that more red-light violations occurred with higher traffic

volumes. The fact that such a large number of red light running behavior was observed,

especially during times of high congestion, suggests that many drivers put their progress

on the roadways ahead of the safety of those around them. Naatanen and Summala (1976)

expand on this idea by offering that obstruction of forward progress is precisely what

leads drivers to frustration and rage. They suggest that this link is not confined only to

driving, but would be present in any means of transportation.

From all accounts, incidents of driver aggression are on the rise. A study of

10,037 incidents of road rage collected by Mizell (1997) for the AAA Foundation of

Highway Safety from 1990 to 1996, found that the amount of reported incidents rose by

approximately 10% each year. Additionally, a survey conducted by the Automobile

Association in 1996 found that 62% of people believe that other drivers on the roadways

have become more violent (Connell & Joint, 1996).

Driver aggression is playing an increasingly dangerous role on today's roadways.

However, its cause remains largely unknown and little is being done to combat it (Byrne,

2000; Mizell, 1997). The purpose of this study is not to find a solution to this epidemic,

but rather, to shed light on one of the many triggers of driver aggression: car stereotyping.

The researchers attempted to incite driver aggression by neglecting to respond to a

stoplight recently changed to green. The researchers would then wait and record the

number of seconds it took for the participant to respond to the delay in the form of a

honk. Those quicker to the horn were assumed to be conducting themselves in a more

aggressive manner than those who honked more slowly or not at all. The test car being

driven by the researchers was varied between a sports car convertible and a small sedan,

the purpose of which was to determine whether or not participant driver aggression

would be influenced by the stereotypes formed about the test car.

The researchers also noted the following variables: the sex and approximate age

of the driver, whether or not there was a passenger in the car, and the type of car being

driven. These variables were secondary to the main purpose of the experiment and were

noted in order to find other patterns that may influence driver aggression.



In this study, the behaviors of 70 individual drivers were observed. Participant

drivers were selected non-systematically on the five days of study, as dictated by the

natural flow of traffic, and were not intentionally made aware of the study. Only drivers

of non-commercial motor vehicles were included in the study.


During the course of the experiment, two researchers drove inside both a 2000

model four-door Volkswagen Jetta sedan and a 1996 model two-door Mazda Miata sports

coupe. It was assumed that the coupe would convey more aggressive vehicular

stereotypes than the sedan would convey (Byrne, 2000). Observations were made by both

researchers using both mirror and direct rear-window observation and were recorded by

hand by the non-driving researcher. An electronic stopwatch accurate to milliseconds was

used to measure time; however, all results were rounded to the nearest whole second to

accommodate for observational inaccuracies.

Design and Procedure

In the course of conducting the study, the researchers drove the test vehicle up to a

red stop light. The driver of the vehicle immediately behind was accepted as a participant,

and the following characteristics were recorded: gender (m/f), age group (<30, 30-50,

>50), type of car (sport, luxury, sedan, SUV, truck, other), and whether or not there were

any human passengers within the car. When the light changed from red to green, the test

vehicle was kept motionless (signaling to the participant a lack of attention to the light

change) and a stopwatch was used to determine how long it took for the participant to

honk. It is assumed that more aggressive participants will honk more quickly than their

less aggressive counterparts. In some cases, it was observed that the participant was not

paying attention and thus had not noticed the light change, in which case the recorded

time represented the latency to honk, minus the latency to attention. Once a honk was

heard or after a maximum of 15 seconds had elapsed, the test vehicle was driven through

the intersection.

In an effort to reduce the adverse stress-related effects of the study on the

participants and the potential for reactive road rage against the test car, the driving

researcher hand-signaled a “thank you” wave to the participant immediately after the

honk was issued.

Observations were not recorded if: the stoplight did not turn red (the test car was

never artificially stopped at a green light), the test vehicle was not the first in line, or no

participant vehicle had pulled up behind the test car before the light turned green. In 3

cases, it was determined that the honk had been issued by a car behind the participant

vehicle, in which case the results were discarded.

The study was conducted over five days during March and April, observing

approximately 20 participants per two-hour session: two sessions on Sunday, two on

Tuesday, and one on Thursday. The Miata test car was randomly established as the test

car for the first session on Sunday, March 11th, and the cars were systematically rotated

for each subsequent session (based on available test days due to weather): The Jetta on

Tuesday, March 20th and Sunday, April 1st; the Miata again on Tuesday, April 3rd and

Thursday, April 26th (the second Miata week-day test was required to gather additional

data for comparison). In the study by Kendrick and MacFarlane (1986), it was found that

outside temperature does influence the amount of aggression displayed. So, the weather

of all test days was purposely confined to sunny and temperate (>65°), in order to reduce

the effects that weather might have had on the mood of the participants. The test sessions

were conducted between the hours of 1 and 5 in the afternoon to avoid rush hour and

noontime traffic congestion. This decision was based on the results of a study

(Wiesenthal, Hennessy & Totten, 2000) that concluded that higher congestion levels led

to greater driver stress.

All observations were made at four-way, two-lane, stop-light-managed

intersections. The experiment was never conducted at four-lane intersections in order to

avoid the potential risks as a result of acts driver vengeance. This behavior is defined by

Hennessy and Wiesenthal as retaliatory action in response to a perceived injustice on the

roadways. It is probable that the artificial delay of movement at a stoplight might incite

such behavior, and would put both the participant and researchers at undue risk. Test

intersections were all within the Santa Rosa city limits, a small city in Northern

California. While great care was taken to evenly distribute the intersection locations used

during each session, due to the many variables that prevented the researchers from

knowing which intersection was to be used until it had been selected by natural

randomization, the intersections used varied accordingly.


Null Hypothesis: The mean number of seconds it takes for the participant to respond in

the form of a honk to the Miata test vehicle is greater (>) than the mean number of

seconds it takes for the participant to respond to the Jetta vehicle.

Alternative Hypothesis (claim): The mean number of seconds it takes for the participant

to respond in the form of a honk to the Miata test vehicle is less (<) than the mean

number of seconds it takes for the participant to respond to the Jetta vehicle.


Number of Miata trials: 35 Number of Jetta trials: 35

Significance Level = .10

Mean of the Miata = 6.7 Standard Deviation: 4

Mean of the Jetta = 8.2 Standard Deviation: 4.5

Test Statistic: -1.47

Critical Value: -1.282

According to these results we can reject the null hypothesis; there is enough

evidence to support the claim that the mean number of seconds it takes for the participant

to honk when the test vehicle is a Miata is less than the mean number of seconds it takes

for the participant to honk when the test vehicle is a Jetta.


The results of this experiment support the hypothesis, which states that more

aggressive vehicles will induce increased levels of driver aggression. After completing 70

test runs, the results showed a link between the test car being used and the length of the

delay until the participant honked.

During this study the researchers were confronted with various confounding

variables. First and foremost, it is acknowledged that the test car selection was limited to

the cars immediately available to the researchers. A follow-up study conducted using an

even more aggressive-looking sports car such as a BMW Z3 compared to an even less

aggressive sedan such as a Volvo station wagon might allow for an even greater disparity

to emerge in the results. Despite this limitation, it is assumed that further research in the

area of car stereotyping as it relates to driver aggression will support the findings of this

study. Secondly, time constraints disallowed the researchers from collecting the breadth

of data originally planned. It is also noted that in each experimental trial the driver of the

test car was male and the passenger, female. Since the sex of the driver was obscured in

the Jetta but observable in the Miata, gender bias may have had an effect on the results.

To account for this possible confound, future researchers may wish to systematically vary

the gender of the driver or choose two vehicles of similar visual obstruction.

Due to time constraints and a limited number of researchers, the study took place

only in Santa Rosa, California, a small city with a population of 150,000 (Source: U.S.

Census 2000). It is hypothesized that similar research conducted in a larger, more

congested city, would yield quicker honk times and may change the results. Additional

testing in other regions may work to increase the external validity of the findings of this

experiment. The researchers did try to limit the number of confounds related to

congestion by conducting the study at approximately the same time of day (between the

hours of 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.) and on similar days of the week, and attempted to minimize

the effect that weather might have on the results by limiting test days to temperate


In 12 of the 70 runs, the participant did not honk after 15 seconds, in which case

the test car was driven away from the intersection to minimize traffic disruption. While

the researchers feel this figure is significant, especially since twice the number of drivers

did not honk in response to the Jetta's delay than the Miata's, there are many other

explanations of such a result. In informal questions asked of several people about why

they might not honk at a stoplight, some suggested that they feel that honking at a

stoplight is rude and would rather wait than offend.

This study is important because it sheds light on car stereotyping, a possible

trigger for driver aggression. In general, people are less patient to the actions of vehicles

that they perceive to be more aggressive. This perception of aggressiveness is largely

based on messages conveyed by the mass media and commercials. When one thinks of a

sports car, such as the Mazda Miata used in this study, the first thing that typically comes

to mind is that it goes fast. This is reinforced by commercials depicting the Miata

speeding along a race track. On the other hand, a sedan such as the Volkswagen Jetta is

typically portrayed as a family car and is linked to stability and safety, not speed.

In traditional materialistic western societies, the car is viewed as an extension of

one's social image, partly because of the enormous amount of time we spend in them

each day, but also as a result of how advertising portrays them. We are taught through the

mass media that our car not only projects an image of ourselves in the eyes of others, but

is also capable of changing this preexisting image. This is similar to the way that

advertisers construe clothing. These messages lead to the formation of stereotypes about

what type of person drives a particular type of car. Thus, drivers tend to assume that the

drivers around them will behave in a manner consistent with the car they are driving,

based on these pre-established stereotypes. It follows that some drivers will

unconsciously respond with less patience to cars they perceive as more aggressive. While

far from conclusive, the results of this study suggest that this automatic process is taking

place on the roadways.

Driver aggression and road rage is a serious concern in today's society. By better

understanding what triggers driver aggression, we can work to reduce its occurrence.

Stereotyping, in all its many forms, will forever be a part of human society, but can be

reduced with knowledge and information. When people are made aware of their own

stereotypes, and are given tools to help reduce them, the cycle can be stopped. Based on

the results of this experiment, it is hypothesized that car stereotyping, and thus a trigger

of driver aggression, can be minimized through increased driver education and

awareness. As Andrew Ferguson of Time magazine puts it: while everyone seems to have

an idea for a cure for road rage, “is there a cure for thinking everyone else on the road is

an idiot?”


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