How Do Emotions Affect Your Driving?

The dangers of road rage are well documented. But, depending on their intensity and our ability to manage them, any emotion—positive or negative—can affect our ability to drive well. When we feel the feelings, there are both physical and mental changes that can cause us to be distracted (or otherwise influence our behaviour on the roads).

Some scientists maintain that there are 4–6 ‘base’ emotions, from which all other feelings are derived. Other research suggests that there’s a total as high as 27. But however many emotions exist, there are practical steps we can take to remain in control of them—and consequently of our cars.

Physical effects of emotion

Strong emotions can have an effect on us physically. They can divert energy away from other physical processes as our bodies try to stabilise our mood. And, incredibly, research at the University of Sussex has also found that when we encounter obstacles on the road at the same moment as a heartbeat, we take longer to respond to them. Quicker heart rates—a well-known side effect of emotions like excitement, anger, and fear mean that obstacles coincide with heartbeats more frequently.

Ultimately, this could lead to more opportunities for accidents…

Mental effects of emotion

Man looking through car rear view mirror with a puzzled expression
Image source: Joshua Wordel via Unsplash

Decision-making is key in driving. We’re not always aware of the choices we make on the roads, because they can be borne out in fractions of seconds. This makes them critical to safety—as a poor decision behind the wheel can have drastic consequences.

We rely on being attentive to make good decisions in a timely manner. It’s obvious that distractions are bad for our driving; you only have to look at statistics for accidents while drivers are on the phone to realise why hand-held mobiles are now banned when you’re in charge of a car.

But it’s easier to ignore the fact that our emotional state also affects our ability to be present and focus—perhaps because it’s so much an action, as a reaction. This doesn’t make it any less distracting, though. We can get so wound up in how we feel, that we can’t concentrate on the things right in front of us.

What effect do positive and negative emotions have on your driving behaviour?

Driver with hand out of sunroof, possibly celebrating good news
Image source: Element5 Digital via Unsplash

Powerful emotions are associated with a change in your attitude, which can have a detrimental effect on your driving. There have been lots of studies into the direct effects of negative emotions on driving behaviour. Those who are prone to aggression and have a reduced ability to regulate their emotions, have been found to undertake more risky actions. This leads to more driving violations and collisions*.

However, similar consequences are thought to occur regardless of whether your emotional response is positive or negative. When your body has any strong emotional reaction, it is sent into overdrive.

How might your emotions manifest themselves in your driving?

🤦  Frustration might make you more impatient than normal—which could see you tailgating or overtaking more recklessly.
😀  Happiness could cross the line into giddiness, where you may fail to notice hazards in your path
😡  Anger could manifest itself through road rage, and cause you to make rash decisions
😨  Fear may take over your nervous system, and make you drive too slowly or brake too harshly.

How to deal with emotions when you’re driving

It’s pretty clear that emotions can get the better of us sometimes. And, as some researchers found:

‘People who showed a diminished capacity for regulating their emotional state were more likely to make errors in driving.’

The answer to safer driving, then, is to try to manage our emotions. First, we need to improve our emotional awareness, so that we can accept that our state of mind might be influencing our behaviour. Try to verbalise—even just in your head—how you feel. Be honest with yourself. Are you surprised or giddy? Upset, stressed, ashamed?

And breathe neon lights on a background of foliage
Image source: Max van den Oetelaar via Unsplash

The next stage is trying to dampen the intensity of our emotions before getting behind the wheel. That would put us in a more neutral emotional state, and help us focus on the task at hand. Here are some practical ideas you can try:

Pull over. When you’re experiencing strong feelings, you should ideally take some time to calm down before you set off. If you start to drive and feel your emotions might be clouding your judgement, then the best thing to do is stop in an appropriate place and take some time out.

Breathing exercises. These can help to regulate your heart rate more quickly and get your mind back on track. The NHS talks you through how to do them, and recommendations incorporating them into your daily routine for maximum effectiveness.

Eliminate other distractions. When you’re dealing with strong emotions, the last thing you need is to have other sources of distraction when you’re driving. It’s best to avoid making (obviously hands-free) phone calls or busying your hands with food. Some things are less clear cut: listening to certain music might help you to calm your feelings, but fiddling with the radio could overload your brain even more. This is where emotional awareness comes in. See what works for you—and remember, the solution might be different in different situations.

Let us know what helps you to calm down from powerful positive or negative emotions. And if you want to read more about safe driving, check out these posts on how to become gain confidence behind the wheel and what checks you should perform on your car, to make sure it’s running smoothly.

And if you’re curious about whether intensive driving courses create safe drivers, we have the answers for you!

*Sanni, S. et al. Aggression, emotional self-regulation, attentional bias, and cognitive inhibition predict risky driving behavior [2020]

By Katie Scott

Katie grew up in the middle of nowhere, so knows the true value of getting behind the wheel. From the rules of the road to handy hints and tips, she'll give you the lowdown on all things driving. Always on the move, when she's not in the car, you'll probably find Katie darting around the squash courts or out running in the rainy British countryside.

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