Bumper stickers a sign of road rage?

June 18, 2008 8:37:56 AM PDT
Study says those messages signal short tempers behind the wheel

A pair of Colorado State University student researchers have sparked a major debate, with their study warning that drivers sporting bumper stickers or decals may be more likely to lapse into "road-rage" behavior when provoked.

The authors say their experiments have found drivers who personalize their cars with message-bearing bumper stickers, window decals, and personalized license plates are more prone to such aggressive driving as tailgating and horn-honking.

It does not seem to matter whether the messages on the stickers are about peace and love -- "Visualize World Peace," "My Kid Is an Honor Student" -- or angry and in your face -- "Don't Mess With Texas," "My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student."

Social psychologists William Szlemko and Paul Bell are the men behind the wheel of this study. Their theory is that drivers who mark their cars tend to see the roads as their personal territory, much as they do their own homes. And those drivers feel a need to defend it against perceived threats.

To do the experiment, one researcher sat in a car in a left-turn lane. When the light turned green, he simply stayed still, blocking the car behind, while another researcher determined whether the blocked car had bumper stickers or other "territorial markers" and measured how long it took for the driver of the blocked car to honk.

According to Szlemko, cars with bumper stickers or other markings honked nearly 2 full seconds faster than drivers of cars without any markings.

Police and federal highway safety officials say aggressive driving might be responsible for up to two-thirds of all traffic accidents involving injuries.

Drivers who don't personalize their cars get angry, too, however, they don't act out their anger. The just fume and curse inside the car.

The study contends the more markers a car has, the more aggressively a person tends to drive when they are provoked.

The results do fit with previous research showing that different territorial spaces evoke distinct emotional responses. People physically defend what they perceive of as private property in ways they simply won't do with public property. Co-author Paul Bell says territoriality is hard-wired into us from our primitive ancestors tens of thousands of years ago. Indeed, all animals have some level of territoriality as a means of survival.

If these conclusions get you steamed, hang on - the same duo will soon publish a story testing their theories on road rage in REAL traffic. Hey, get your hand off that horn!