“Feeling powerful”

an inteview with Parichehr Scharifi

Nonstop (Issue III/2019)

Ms Sharifi, what is traffic psychology all about?

The history of traffic psychology began in the early 19th century, when the first tram was developed. Back at that time tram drivers tended to like the odd drink or two. People had to think hard about how to convince them to change their behaviour. They had to realise that their decisions endangered the passengers.

Does alcohol still play a role today?

In Germany, alcohol is actually the most serious topic. Some people also recover points. But it is always about one's own behaviour: Those who repeatedly break the rules are advised to seek therapy.

But everyone knows that you should obey traffic rules. Why do people break them so often?

Where there is a lack of control, habit and comfort start to dominate. In Germany, only one traffic offender out of 10,000 is caught. That's why many people think that nothing will happen to them if they send a quick text message. Ninety percent of all traffic accidents are due to human error. Of course, technology and traffic planning have to work. But even if these two factors are perfect, the biggest safety risk still comes from people.

Many people are most afraid of technical errors when they take a plane or new technologies, such as driverless cars ...

It's always the same dynamic: what you don't know is the most scary. Modern technology actually offers people more safety than we ever had before. But technology can never be perfectly controlled. If I make a mistake, it’s a perfectly human response to blame it on technology. Most serious traffic errors don't just happen, rather they are symptoms of other problems. For many speeders, stepping on the accelerator is simply a way of reducing stress.

Why do people react particularly aggressively in road traffic, of all places?

Behind aggression there is always frustration, for example because of a sense of powerlessness in other areas of life. These extreme negative feelings have to be let out somewhere. And where is it easier than within your own car? Many people feel untouchable there. You are sealed off and can rant unrestrainedly. That helps. And you believe you have absolute control over the vehicle. You can use it as a weapon, threaten someone: by driving up close or loudly honking the horn.

And this behaviour is supposed to ease their sense of frustration?

Exactly. That feeling of appearing threatening can be a relief. When I myself feel powerful it makes me forget, for a moment, that I can feel powerless. But of course, it is not a lasting solution for deeper problems.

Can road traffic also trigger psychological problems?

Certainly. Traffic is increasing, especially in cities, which can be very stressful. I myself come from Tehran, a big city with crazy traffic jams and terrible statistics on road fatalities. It was a big insight for me to realise that by changing behavior you can have a big effect on road safety. The problem is that many people don't know how to deal with stress. You can't just wipe stress away, you have to reduce it, learn to deal with it. A very simple example is time management, i.e. calculating a bit of extra time for all journeys you make. Often it is the really obvious things that work wonders.

an interview by Gundula Haage

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