Understanding the Brain

Traffic psychology

From Cognopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Traffic psychology is a young, expanding and wide field in psychology. Whereas traffic psychology is primarily related to the study of the behavior of road users and the psychological processes underlying that behavior (Rothengatter, 1997, 223) as well as to the relationship between behavior and accidents, transportation psychology, sometimes referred to as mobility psychology, focuses on mobility issues, individual and social factors in the movement of people and goods, and travel demand management (TDM).

There is no single theoretical framework in traffic psychology, but, instead, many specific models explaining, for example, the perceptual, attentional, cognitive, social, motivational and emotional determinants of mobility and traffic behaviour. One of the most prominent behavioral models divides the various tasks involved in traffic participation into three hierarchical levels, i.e. the strategic, the tactical and the operational level. The model demonstrates the diversity of decision and control tasks which have to be accomplished when driving a vehicle. However, until now, most of the psychological models have had a rather heuristic nature, e.g. risk theories such as the risk compensation hypothesis, Fuller's task capability model, and thus are not sufficiently precise to allow for concrete behavioral prediction and control. This is partly due to the importance of individual differences, a major topic of psychology which has not yet been sufficiently accounted for in traffic and transportation. On the other hand, social and psychological attitude/behavior models, such as Ajzen's theory of planned behavior, have been helpful in identifying determinants of mobility decisions.

Bringing together the scientific and practical lines, six areas of traffic and transportation psychology can be distinguished (Schlag, 1999):

Areas of traffic psychology

Behavior and accident research

This is particularly in relation to different groups of road users (age groups, modes of transport), but also in relation to road design and motor vehicles. Explaining and predicting road user behavior depends on the development of valid and reliable models about the role of human factors in mobility behavior, and, especially, driver performance. Psychological traffic accident and behavior research deals with matters such as:

  • analysis of the driving task, changing conceptually from a traditionally rather sensory-motor task to a task with high monitoring impact,
  • perception, cognition and attentiveness when driving, driver information processing and expectations,
  • the driver's state, workload, alertness and fatigue,
  • driver personality, risk-taking, attitudes, motives for driving, excitedness and emotion,
  • interactions and the social psychology of driving,
  • the relationship between the personal and environmental background of behavior, overt behavior, emerging conflicts and accidents,
  • work on risk compensation theory.

Accident prevention and improvement of traffic safety

This comprises education and information, above all following the “4 Es”: enforcement, education, engineering, encouragement/economy. The main goal is promoting safety by influencing and modifying behavior using legal, educational, vehicle- and road-specific measures; driver training, driving-instructor education, information on traffic issues, campaign design and marketing, effective enforcement.

Research and counselling in questions of mobility, transport economy and engineering

The main objective is user-oriented supply and design in as practical a form as possible. This includes differentiation between transportation needs of special groups (the elderly, the handicapped, young people, etc.). The main topics are

  • mobility needs and travel demands, choice of means of transport,
  • travel behavior research, above all activity-based approaches,
  • altering mobility behavior and modal split, problems of habituation and resistance to change, car dependence,
  • design and acceptance of travel demand management, above all of road pricing measures (Schade & Schlag, 2003),
  • psychological aspects in road design and traffic environment,
  • quality management, especially quality of service, usability and well-being.

Vehicle construction and design

Psychology in car manufacturing traditionally deals with questions of ergonomics, but since the 1980s new in-car devices and related new infrastructure have emerged as a rapidly growing field. Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and new information systems are designed to support the driver in an appropriate, user-oriented way. Based on analyses of driving tasks which drivers have to cope with, e.g. multiple tasks requiring divided attention, psychologists’ primary orientation in the design process is towards human needs. This involves defining the technical requirements, human-centred development and usability of ADAS, the operability of Human-Machine Interfaces (HMI), behavioral adaptation and risk compensation, acceptance of innovations, and social impacts.

Psychological assessment and counselling / rehabilitation

This kind of assessment and counselling is for drivers who display irregular behavior. It involves driver assessment, training and rehabilitation, above all for drivers with offences (driving while intoxicated, severe offences against traffic laws), aptitude assessment for driving, selection and training for professional drivers.

Rail and flight psychology

Some of the fields mentioned above not only apply to road traffic but also to rail and air transport. Nevertheless, in some ways, rail and flight psychology have historically developed separately from traffic psychology, which is dominantly road-related. One major new direction in rail and flight psychology is the shift in focus from the perspective of the professional operator (selection and training) to that of the customer (quality of service, usability).


From its very beginning, in research and practice, traffic psychology has followed an interdisciplinary approach and has shared common topics with other fields, in particular medicine (e.g. related to driving aptitude), engineering (ergonomics of cars as well as human factors in traffic planning), and economics (e.g. travel demand management). People as road users are seen as the core of an interactive traffic system also comprising transportation means, routes, traffic environment and regulation. Thus, mobility, including its positive as well as detrimental impacts, originates in people’s desires, decisions and behavior – and these might be influenced. The main accident causes are human errors and maladaptive behavior, accounting alone or in interaction with roadway or vehicle-related causes for more than 90% of all traffic accidents. Recognizing the possible impact of psychology in studying and solving transport problems, traffic and transportation psychology has emerged rapidly since the 1980s.


  • Rothengatter, T. (1997). Psychological aspects of road user behavior. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 46, 3, 223-234.
  • Schade, J., & Schlag, B. (eds.) (2003). Acceptability of transport pricing strategies. Oxford, Elsevier.
  • Schlag, B. (ed.). (1999). Empirische Verkehrspsychologie [Empirical Traffic Psychology] . Lengerich, Berlin, Pabst Science Publishers.

Further reading

  • PASS - Psychological and medical assistance for safe mobility. An interdisciplinary model to promote and secure mobility competence in Europe.
  • Barjonet, P. E. (Hrsg). (2001). Traffic psychology today. Boston, London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Groeger, J. A., Rothengatter, J. A. (1998). Traffic psychology and behavior. Transportation Research Part F, 1 (1), 1-9.
  • James, Leon and Nahl, Diane. Road Rage and Aggressive Driving (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2000.)
  • Novaco, R. W. (2001). Psychology of Transportation. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 15878-15882.
  • Rothengatter, T. & Huguenin, D. (eds.) (2004). Traffic and Transport Psychology. Theory and Application. Proceedings of the ICTTP 2000. Oxford: Elsevier.
  • Underwood, G. (ed.) (2005). Traffic and Transport Psychology. Theory and Application. Proceedings of the ICTTP 2004. Oxford: Elsevier.
  • Wilde G. J. S. (1994). Target risk: dealing with the danger of death, disease and damage in everyday decisions. Toronto: PDE Publ.

Relevant journals

Encyclopedias, information services, statistics

Research organisations, online resources


See also


ja:交通心理学 tr:Trafik psikolojisi