Tell me who you are and I'll tell you how you drive

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Research shows that personality is an important factor in road safety. This makes a systematic and detailed assessment of personality dimensions all the more important, and this is where psychology comes in.

"Anything but Gentlemen“

On August 17, 1896, Arthur James Edsall demonstrates the advantages of an automobile at a major technology show in London. To this end, he organized a demonstration drive with a Roger Benz - and in the process drove Bridget Driscoll to her death as she was about to cross the road. Eyewitnesses report that Edsall drove the car "at a reckless speed almost like a galloping horse or fire engine" (about 7 km/h). Thus, Bridget Driscoll gained sad notoriety as the first fatality of a traffic accident.

According to lore, The Times later analyzed that "an above-average number of motorists were anything but gentlemen." The Duke of Beaufort then reportedly gave vent to his contempt, raging "Shoot, shoot all motorists!"

In any case, A.J. Edsall was acquitted after the prosecution, and the investigating officer said at the conclusion of the trial that he hoped such a thing would never happen again.

One thinks - one steers

Today, we know that this wish was not fulfilled. Although the number of fatalities in road traffic has been falling steadily for decades, we are still a long way from "Vision Zero“. Nevertheless, various disciplines continue to work tirelessly toward this goal. But what contribution can psychology actually make? Isn't it enough for technicians to rack their brains over driver assistance systems and road design? When medical professionals analyze injuries?

The answer is no! Because the factor of human error was and has been for years by far the most frequent cause of accidents in road traffic. Since psychology as a scientific discipline deals with the experience and behavior of humans, it is therefore obvious that it is also a fixed and essential component of road safety work. In addition to clarifying psychophysical performance, this also involves the question of which individual personality traits make traffic-endangering behavior more or less likely.

Good to know:

"Vision Zero" is a global strategy to prevent fatal and serious accidents on the roads, among other things. It is, according to the official transport policy definition, "the picture of a future in which no one is killed or so seriously injured in road traffic that they suffer lifelong damage."

Good to know:

Psychophysical performance includes cognitive functions such as attention, information processing, intelligence functions, or reaction performance.

Get your own opinion

Driving behavior is influenced by emotions, motivations and personality, with personality in turn influencing emotion, motivation and their impact on driving behavior. In practice, this is reflected in conscious and unconscious decisions.

A man drives as he lives…
“If his personal life is marked by caution, tolerance, foresight, and consideration for others, then he will drive in the same manner. If his personal life is devoid of these desirable characteristics, then his driving will be characterized by same” (Tillmann & Hobbs, 1949).

Kevin is 20 years old, has had his driver's license for 2 years and is driving home from a barbecue in his 140hp car. He is in a good mood right now, because he had a lot of fun, and he is also otherwise satisfied with his life.

Kevin accelerates because he feels good and it is fun to drive on the almost empty road. He feels the pull of the vehicle when he accelerates. His mood continues to lift, Kevin is almost in the flow (emotion). Kevin sees a little way ahead of him the red Golf of his friend Christian, with whom he was just at the party. He continues to accelerate, because he is a "car-centered guy," which means that performance and power are important to him. It would be ridiculous if he couldn't catch up with Christian (motivation). Kevin is convinced of himself, is not risk-averse, likes to make his own rules and sometimes puts his own interests into practice without worrying much about others (personality). So Kevin steps on the gas. And then what? Maybe he'll do well at home, maybe not. What do you think?

Kevin is 20 years old, has had his driver's license for 2 years and is driving home from a barbecue party in his 140hp car. He is in a good mood, because he had a lot of fun, and also otherwise he is satisfied with his life.

Even if the road is empty, Kevin really just wants to enjoy the quiet ride (emotion). So he doesn't step on the gas. Kevin sees the red Golf of his friend Christian, with whom he was just at the party, a little way ahead of him. He doesn't drive up too close, because he doesn't want to provoke his friend. He doesn't see any point in the "horsepower battle" (motivation).  He doesn't step on the gas. But why not? Because rules are important to him and because he is aware that his behavior has an impact on others. Because he is not an aggressive type and is emotively stable (personality). So Kevin doesn't step on the gas. And then what? Maybe he does well at home, maybe he doesn't. What do you think?


Driving is human: How personality influences driving behavior

In our story, we are dealing with the same situations but two different behaviors. How exactly personality traits affect driving behavior has already been investigated in numerous studies (see e.g.Åberg, 1998; Arnett, Offer & Fine, 1997; Klipp et al., 2008; Burton et al., 1999; Eysenck, 1965; Herzberg & Schlag, 2006; Yu & Williford, 1993). In essence, the following correlations have been found:


Risk taking

  • Speeding offenses
  • Drunkenness offenses
  • Overtaking at overtaking bans
  • Number of penalties


  • Speeding offenses
  • Accidents
  • Drunkenness offenses
  • Seat belt violation
  • Traffic violations in general

Emotional stability

  • Accidents
  • Drunkenness offenses



  • Traffic violations general
  • accidents
  • fines
  • Entries in the central traffic register for traffic offeners (VZR)

Why you can't do without personality tests


Research clearly shows that personality is an important factor in road safety. This makes it all the more important to record personality dimensions systematically and in detail. This is exactly where psychology comes into play. Psychological methods for recording personality dimensions include exploration, behavioral observation and data from test procedures.

Behavioral observation is a systematic observation and registration of behaviors. It is carried out with regard to certain criteria, which depend on the setting. (Driving) behavior observations in real traffic include, for example, criteria such as accident, near-accident, traffic violation, driving error, traffic adaptability, etc. The strengths of this method lie primarily in the mapping of compensation possibilities and their behavioral implementation. The weaknesses of driving behavior observations are mainly the lack of standardization (weather conditions, traffic volume, occurrence of critical events etc...), validity (reliability of the result), the often uneconomical execution and the potential danger.

Behavioral observation in exploration includes e.g. physical signs of substance use, gaze behavior, excessive tension, resistance, and the like. There is a risk of classic test conductor effects, which are characterized by certain expectations on the part of the diagnostician and can lead to distortions if insufficient reflection takes place.


Exploration as a diagnostic method serves to examine personality traits, interests, values, attitudes, problems and ways of thinking of the person. Due to the high demands on the verbal competence of the assessor, the different questioning techniques and possible transference phenomena, interfering factors (e.g. suggestions) can occur during the exploration, which can color the data subjectively. Statements about problematic drinking behavior, stable changes, etc. are ultimately captured by the exploratory interview, but should be further corroborated by test results.

Personality Inventories are not intended to replace exploration, nor can they. However, they are an indispensable tool to... 

  • obtain further information relevant to the assessment process
  • identify any subjective bias in the exploration
  • to check the information from the exploration with regard to consistency or inconsistency
  • to give clues for deeper exploration topics relevant for the assessment.

Most test procedures for recording traffic-related personality dimensions are classic questionnaires. These have the reputation of being easily falsifiable.  

Modern personality questionnaires, however, are so methodologically advanced that falsification tendencies can either be kept as low as possible from the outset or alternatively made visible. If falsification tendencies are detected, this provides the diagnostician with valuable information: Personality questionnaires are used to assess a person's self-image based on the information he or she reveals about him or herself. When falsification tendencies occur, the assessing psychologist should distinguish between impression management and self deception. Whereas impression management aims at the tendency to create a socially desirable image, self-deception is about a distorted, but subjectively believed to be correct self-assessment (Paulhus, 1991; Lindeman & Verkasalo, 1994). Extremely simplified, these aspects would have the following effect in our example with Kevin: 1) Kevin knows that he likes to speed sometimes, but consciously states that the speeding was a one-time event because he knows that this is an undesirable behavior and he does not want to give a bad image of himself (impression management). 2) Due to an inner protective function, Kevin is not aware of the fact that the displayed speeding violation is not a one-off event, and for these reasons negates further offenses of non-standard behavior (self-deception).

This information can prove valuable in the assessment process, on the one hand for the evaluation of the test results, but also for the continuation of the exploration or post-exploration.

 By integrating the different sources of information (exploration, behavioral observation, file analyses, test results) in combination with their expert knowledge of human behavior, psychologists can thus arrive at the best possible statement about the expression and relevance of personality traits relevant to traffic safety. Due to the massive legal and also personal consequences of the assessment for the client's fitness to drive, the best possible validation of the assessment using valid personality procedures such as IVPE-R, KEKS or VIP is of particular importance.

Åberg, L. (1998). Traffic rules and traffic safety. Safety Science, 29, 205-215.

Arnett, J. Offer, D. & Fine, M.A. (1997). Reckless driving in adolescence: Stait and trait factors. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 29, 129-143.

Klipp, S. et. al (2008). DRUID WP 5 State of the Art on Driver Rehabilitation: Literature Analysis & Provider Survey. Available online:

Burton, V. S., Evans, T. D., Cullen, F. T., Olivares, K. M. & Dunaway, R. G. (1999). Age, self-control, and adult’s offending behaviors: A research note assessing a General Theory of Crime. Journal of Criminal Justice, 1, 45-54.

Eysenck, H. J. (1965). Fact and fiction in psychology. Harmsworth: Penguine

Falkenstein, M. & Karthaus, M. (2017). Fahreignung im höheren Lebensalter. Sensibilisieren- Erfassen-Fördern. Stuttgart: Kolhammer

Herzberg, P. Y., & Schlag, B. (2006). Aggression und Aggressivität im Straßenverkehr [Aggression and Aggressiveness in Road Traffic Contexts]. Zeitschrift für Sozialpsychologie, 37(2), 73–86.

Paulhus, D. L. (1991). Measurement and control of response bias. In J. P. Robinson, P. R. Shaver, & L. S. Wrightsman (Eds.), Measures of personality and social psychological attitudes (pp. 17–59). Academic Press.

Tillmann, W. & Hobbs, G. (1949). The accident-prone automobile driver; a study of the psychiatric and social background. Am J Psychiatry; 106(5):321-31.

Verkasalo, M., & Lindeman, M. (1994). Personal ideals and socially desirable responding. European Journal of Personality, 8(5), 385–393.

Yu J, & Williford W.R. (1993). Alcohol and risk/sensation seeking: specifying a causal model on high-risk driving. J Addict Dis.;12(1):79-96. doi: 10.1300/J069v12n01_07.