Surveys at the roadside have found that in the UK, on some 30 miles an hour roads, nearly half of the people passing are driving over the speed limit. Also, a survey of convicted motorists found that some had been speeding accidentally, leading to them getting caught by others. They chose to drive over the speed limit because it was inappropriately low, in their opinion.
So it seems for many drivers, speeding is a choice. But there’s the elephant in the room when we look academically at fast driving and car culture psychology. What are the reasons for people driving so fast? Let’s learn about it scientifically.
Why do people drive so fast?
People are addicted to driving their car fast, or they’re so-called adrenaline-lover. Adrenaline, also called epinephrine, is a hormone. You can think of hormones as a chemical messenger flowing through your bloodstream and causing various cells that come in contact with them to act differently than they usually would.
During stressful, exciting, or dangerous situations, adrenal glands release various hormones like adrenaline into your bloodstream. It is a fight or flight response because you’re in danger, and your body prepares to fight or take flight, even though humans can’t fly. The adrenaline release causes a noticeable boost in strength and reaction speeds during this fight or flight response. It does this by dilating air passages to increase the oxygen intake.
Then when adrenaline comes in contact with your cardiac pacemaker cells, your heart rate increases, sending that extra oxygen to your brain and all the other tissues in your body. The body’s sensitivity to pain also decreases due to adrenaline, so you can continue running from or fighting danger even when you’re injured. Most people like this feeling, even if dangerous situations trigger it. But something enjoyable doesn’t make it technically addictive.
Three events define a pattern of addiction.
- First, experimentation and our case. We’re talking about experimenting with driving fast or dangerously, which would produce a thrill response full of adrenaline.
- The next step is withdrawal. It is when the thrill-seeker in question experiences an overpowering desire to recreate the events that first produced that initial response.
- The third step is preoccupation, when all the addict can think about or do is seek out their next experience.
So does adrenaline follow this same cycle? Currently, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Addictions, the Bible for diagnosing and treating addiction, doesn’t recognize adrenaline as an addictive substance. Pathological gambling earned a spot in that same manual. So pathological adrenaline-seeking could be added soon.
The experiment of fast driving
According to the latest L.A. study, 80% of people drive aggressively at least once a year, 51% tailgate, 12% cut off other drivers, and 3% bump or ram. Another vehicle psychiatrist, Dr. Himanshu Agarwal, says that people act in their cars the same way people say more aggressively online than in someone’s face.
For many people, owning a car and driving are not simply a means of getting a to-be but pleasure. Psychologists talk about a state known as flow. When we’re in flow, we get so absorbed in a task that we exclude everything else. It’s all about balancing the challenge of the activity and our abilities to meet that challenge.
When psychologists try to research flow, one of the things we do is send people out in the world with little beepers. Every time the beeper sounds, we ask people to report how much flow they’re feeling and what it was they were doing. When the beep is sound, they often report feeling flow in that particular activity when people are driving. But driving and being in stop-start city traffic will not be as intuitive to flow as being on an open road in the countryside.
Given that flow is about the match between the task and a person’s abilities, perhaps people speed to increase the challenge of the task and make the experience of driving in any situation a more flowing experience. One survey of motorists that did include the concept of fun was a survey of motorcyclists in Taiwan.
In that survey, one of the strongest predictors of the intention to exceed the speed limit was the challenge and enjoyment of riding a motorcycle, which opens up the possibility that speeding is indeed an expression of flow.
This points to some novel ways people are trying to make the road safer so everybody can manage excessive use of speed. If cars could be designed to make driving at the speed limit a challenge, using GPS technology to monitor average speed, people would be less inclined to put their foot down when looking for a challenge.
Learn more similar topics:
Jensen, Christopher. “Taming a Mountain Road With Horses and Cars.” The New York Times.
Driving in France for UK Drivers”. Driving in Paris. (Car Insurance)
“Getting moving.” Driving Test Advice. Driving Safety & Drivers safety course online.
“Think driving is all about practical skills?”. Easy to Drive.