Should we be aiming to engage drivers more with others on-road? Driving moral disengagement and self-reported driving aggression

Author(s): Jasmine Cleary, Alexia Lennon, Alison Swann
Dr. Charles H. Miller Award

Slidedeck Presentation not available:


Aggressive driving behaviours may be associated with greater crash risk in situations where drivers engage in riskier types of behaviours such as following too closely. Although trait aggression, trait anger and driving anger have been shown to be associated with self-reported aggressive driving behaviour, it appears that many drivers who do not normally regard themselves as angry or aggressive report engaging in aggressive driving acts. Qualitative studies have reported that drivers explain these behaviours with reference to justified retaliation or beliefs that such acts teach other drivers a lesson or to exercise better driving manners or etiquette, or that they do not have a negative impact on others. Such descriptions of motives bear a strong resemblance to the psychological mechanisms of moral disengagement put forward by Bandura in his attempt to explain how apparently good or moral people commit bad or immoral behaviours. Bandura argues that moral disengagement explains how individuals may detach themselves from their usual self-regulatory processes or morality in order to behave in ways that run counter to their moral standards. Such processes function by permitting the person to maintain perceptions of the self as adhering to a high moral code and avoid self-censure. Bandura goes further to posit that there are three categories of moral disengagement: cognitively misinterpreting the behaviour (e.g euphemistic labelling); disconnecting with the target (e.g. attributing blame to the target); and distorting or denying the impact of the behaviour.

This study investigated whether moral disengagement can provide an explanation of self-reported driving aggression over and above that provided by constructs normally associated with greater levels of self-reported on-road aggression.
A convenience sample of general drivers (n = 294) completed an on-line survey including measures of trait aggression (AQ), driving anger (DAS), moral disengagement (Moral Disengagement Scale), and an adaptation of the Moral Disengagement Scale for the driving context (the Driving Moral Disengagement Scale).

Hierarchical regression analyses revealed that the independent variables together explained 37% of the variation in self-reported driving aggression (as measured by the Driving Anger Expression scale, DAX). Driving moral disengagement was entered at the final step of the regression and was a significant predictor of driving aggression (p < .001) after accounting for the contribution of age, gender, driving anger, and moral disengagement. Moreover, inspection of the beta weights suggested that driving moral disengagement (beta = .45) was the strongest predictor for this sample, accounting for 20% of the unique variance in driving aggression (sr squared = .20).

While the measures of moral disengagement and driving moral disengagement were moderately highly and positively correlated, driving moral disengagement appears to capture aspects unique to the driving environment. The pattern of results suggests drivers with higher tendencies to morally disengage in the driving context may respond to others more aggressively on-road.

Seeking to prevent drivers from activating moral disengagement while driving may be worthy of exploration as a way of reducing non-violent forms of driving aggression.