When it comes to psychology, there are a lot of different areas of study. After all, psychology is pretty broad - it’s the study of how our minds work and how we come to display certain behaviors. Think about all the decisions you make in a day: the decision to hang out with friends, whether or not you want to yell at the person who cut you off, or whether you think it’s “worth it” to break the laws that society put in place. These decisions relate to different areas of psychology, including traffic psychology.
Yes, I said “traffic psychology.”
What Is Traffic Psychology?
Traffic psychology studies the mind and behavior as it relates to driving. But this isn’t just about what people think when sitting in traffic on their way to work. Traffic psychology looks at the intricacies of driving and people's decisions in their cars.
Given its focus on vehicular behavior and related human interactions, traffic psychology is understandably a newer branch of psychology. Its prominence in Europe since the 1960s can be attributed to several factors. Europe, with its dense urban centers and intricate road systems, faced unique traffic safety and congestion challenges earlier than many other regions. Additionally, European nations have historically been pioneers in automotive innovations, and as cars became more accessible to the masses, understanding the human behavior behind the wheel became crucial. While cars have been on the roads since the late 1800s, the surge in vehicular density and the consequent need for improved road safety measures during the mid-20th century likely led to the rise of traffic psychology as a specialized field in Europe.
What Do Traffic Psychologists Do?
So what exactly are traffic psychologists studying if they’re not surveying what podcasts people enjoy on their commute? When you get into the central questions of traffic psychology, you can understand how important this field is:
How feelings and motivations impact traffic accidents.
Traffic accidents often result from human behavior, but it's essential to acknowledge that not all are preventable due to human actions alone. Technical failures, environmental factors, and unforeseen circumstances can also play a role. While many accidents are influenced by decisions like using a cell phone, eating, or listening to distracting music while driving, there are others where human behavior isn't the primary cause. Understanding the motivations and behaviors behind preventable accidents is crucial. That's where psychologists come into play, helping to shed light on why we sometimes engage in risky behaviors while driving and how we can mitigate them.
What laws and systems of punishment can prevent traffic accidents?
Different governments at the national, state, and local levels set laws regarding traffic. Do these help or hurt a person’s motivation to speed or commit other dangerous acts? Do DUI checkpoints increase or decrease a person’s motivation to recruit a DD or call an Uber? Looking specifically at public policy can help government officials set the right laws and punishments for drivers who may have a lead foot or distract themselves while driving.
When do people experience road rage?
Is this a symptom of an individual or traffic patterns themselves? Are there factors psychologists have missed when considering what makes someone prone to road rage? When is road rage impulsive, and when is it a sign of larger emotional issues? The answers to these questions may help identify people who need road intervention and keep everyone safer while driving.
Habits regarding traffic and driving.
Those who habitually text while driving may not need stricter laws to motivate them - they might need to learn how to break a bad habit. The habits people carry while driving may start in driver’s education or end only when proper intervention has been taken. Traffic psychologists can help to see these patterns and habits and consult campaigns on initiatives that help people break bad habits.
Driver education and testing.
What needs to be on a driver’s test? When should people retake tests to renew their licenses? Changes to current programs have the potential to save lives and keep our roads safer. Traffic psychologists may be needed to study and assess what procedures are safest and what needs to be assessed before someone is put on the road.
User Modeling / Human Design Modeling in Traffic Psychology
Amid the myriad concerns of traffic psychology, one emerging area of interest is the domain of User Modeling and Human Design Modeling. As cars and traffic systems become more technologically advanced, understanding the psychology of the users — the drivers — becomes indispensable for designers.
- What is User Modeling in Traffic Psychology?
- User Modeling in the context of traffic psychology refers to creating representative profiles or models of different types of drivers. These profiles can encompass a range of factors, from basic driving habits to more complex psychological behaviors and reactions under various driving conditions.
- Importance of Human Design Modeling:
- With the advent of autonomous vehicles and smarter road infrastructure, a better understanding of human behaviors and preferences is needed. Human Design Modeling focuses on designing vehicular interiors, interfaces, and road systems that align with how humans naturally think and behave. The objective is to minimize cognitive load, reduce potential for errors, and enhance the overall driving experience.
- Application in Real-world Scenarios:
- Consider the design of a car's dashboard. Using principles from traffic psychology and user modeling, designers can arrange indicators and controls most intuitively for most drivers. Similarly, designing a city's traffic flow can benefit from understanding the predominant driving behaviors and designing roads that cater to these tendencies, ultimately improving traffic flow and reducing accidents.
- Bridging Traffic Psychology and Design:
- As traffic systems become more complex, the collaboration between traffic psychologists and designers becomes crucial. While traffic psychologists bring insights into driver behaviors and motivations, designers translate these insights into tangible systems, interfaces, and environments. This symbiotic relationship is set to define the future of road safety and user experience in vehicular design.
How to Become a Traffic Psychologist
As you can see, there is much more to traffic psychology than you might think. The research findings that traffic psychologists can offer won’t just help Europeans on the road, either. This work has the potential to save many lives across the world - that’s a good reason to get into a career!
Traffic psychology is a specialized branch, and pursuing a career requires specific training and guidance. The journey typically starts with a solid foundation in general psychology before diving into more specialized areas. Here's a more detailed roadmap:
- Bachelor's Degree in Psychology or Related Field: While some universities offer courses in traffic psychology at the undergraduate level, your main focus should be building a strong psychology foundation.
- Master's Degree (Optional but Beneficial): While not always necessary, a Master's degree can provide a deeper understanding and a chance to conduct initial research in the field. Look for programs offering coursework or specialization in driving-related human behavior.
- Doctorate Degree in Psychology: Choose institutions that emphasize traffic psychology or offer opportunities to work with faculty members conducting research in the field. For instance, European universities, where traffic psychology is more rooted, might be an excellent choice.
- Relevant Courses to Consider: During your academic journey, try to enroll in courses like Human Factors in Transportation, Transportation Safety, Behavioral Traffic Safety, and Driver Behavior and Training.
- Internships and Field Work: Practical experience is invaluable. Consider internships with organizations like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or research facilities focusing on driver behavior. These experiences can provide a real-world understanding of traffic psychology and essential networking opportunities.
- Certifications: While there might not be a specific 'Traffic Psychologist' certification, courses and certifications in traffic safety, human factors, and related fields can bolster your expertise and credibility.
- Notable Institutions: While many institutions globally offer psychology programs, look for ones with a dedicated department or faculty for traffic psychology or transportation safety. In Europe, institutions in countries like Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands have been pioneers in this field.
- Continuous Learning: The field of traffic psychology is continually evolving. Engage in workshops, seminars, and conferences dedicated to the latest research and findings in the sector. You might also find a career in your field by working at a research facility that allows you to research your questions about driver behavior and motivations.
What Is a Traffic Psychologist's Salary?
Remember, traffic psychology is a very new field of study. There isn't much data on the salaries that traffic psychologists make. However, looking at what other psychologists make, you can get an idea of what you will earn as a traffic or specialized psychologist.
As this field develops, organizations will discover this field and the ways that traffic psychology can help them. If this is your passion, don’t be afraid to pursue it - we need traffic psychologists to help change public policy, keep people safe, and understand why we get so frustrated in traffic!
You might not know any famous traffic psychologists or see any books relating to traffic psychology on the New York Times best-seller list, but this is a branch of psychology that people are studying every day!