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What drives a traffic psychologist

Driving is more than a means of transportation to Dwight Hennessy, associate professor of psychology at Buffalo State College. He defines it as a process that results from a lifetime of experience.

Hennessy discovered his subspecialty -- traffic psychology -- after years of navigating the roads of Ontario, Canada, where he was born 42 years ago. Today Hennessy commutes daily from his home in Fort Erie, where he lives with his wife and their two young sons.

>People Talk: What kind of a driver are you?

Dwight Hennessy: Much more cautious than I used to be. After having kids, I'm much more purposeful, but there was a point where I was very much like the drivers I study. I stressed easily, angered quickly, and that is part of what motivated my interest in this area.

>PT: What prompted your stress?

DH: A move to Toronto, where it would take an hour to drive 20 miles. It was frustrating, and that's how I got into it.

>PT: Is yours a crowded field?

DH: In North America, we just don't pay attention to it. In Europe, especially the U.K., there's a lot more attention paid to the psychology of driving. We pay a lot of attention to engineering here, but you can't just make a safer vehicle because it's people who use them.

>PT: What could you do better as a driver?

DH: I think I drive too fast. I judge other drivers too quickly. I'm probably fairly impatient of those who drive slower than I do.

>PT: Who coined the term road rage?

DH: I don't know, but the British have been talking about it for a long time, more than 15 years. I think the term is probably something that sounds better in English, the alliteration. I don't know what the German version of road rage would be, but they talk about the excessive anger drivers experience when other drivers do stupid things, and the vengeful nature of drivers.

>PT: Is a person's driver personality their true personality?

DH: That's a hotly contested notion. Driver tendencies are rooted in who we are. Deep down, under the right conditions, anybody can be instigated. There's something unique about the driving environment that allows us to express that more easily. Largely, it's the anonymous conditions. Nobody knows who you are in the vehicle, plus you're driving at high speeds.

>PT: What is it about driving that gets people so wigged out?

DH: It's one of the biggest predictors of stress. Stress is one of the biggest culprits for most of what goes wrong in driving. Some people enjoy driving. Most people don't. The Sunday drive that used to happen didn't occur during rush-hour traffic. Time of day and density of vehicles change how people respond to driving.

>PT: Who is more aggressive, men or women?

DH: We find repeatedly that women are just as likely to do these things as men. Men are more likely to do violent things. They are more likely to get out of their cars and have a physical confrontation with you. But when you talk about things like getting up on your tail, flashing your high beams or swearing or yelling or shooting you the finger, women are just as likely as men.

>PT: Describe Buffalo drivers.

DH: There is a phenomenon I call the Buffalo stop, where at stop signs or red lights drivers don't come to a complete stop. When I first got here, I wasn't prepared for how often it happened, and people joke about it.

>PT: Buffalo also is a city of U-turns.

DH: I would not disagree with that. I see U-turns where you would not ordinarily expect to see them. It's not as busy here as in some locations, so you could probably get away with that. I've seen people pull U-turns on the [Kensington Expressway]. It freaked me out.

>PT: Where on earth do drivers run the most red lights?

DH: I don't know, but there are cultures where red-light running is a common practice, where if no one is there you are allowed to keep going. In Egypt, for instance, it's common practice and even in some parts of the United States, Detroit for example.

>PT: I hear traffic is a mess in Moscow.

DH: It is. I never experienced anything like that before in my life. The city is built in concentric circles around the Kremlin, and at any time you could have police or the military stop traffic for 30 to 45 minutes without warning so politicians can drive.

>PT: What has studying traffic taught you about people?

DH: We're all not that different. It doesn't matter the country you're from or the culture. The roads might be different; the cars might be different. The laws might be unique, but when it comes down to it, we all operate under similar psychological processes.


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