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Traffic psychology
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Traffic psychology

Traffic psychology is a young expanding field in psychology. Whereas traffic psychology is primarily related to "the study of the behaviour of road users and the psychological processes underlying that behaviour" (Rothengatter, 1997, 223) as well as to the relation between behaviour and accidents, transportation psychology, sometimes referred to as mobility psychology, has its focus 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 many specific models explaining, e.g., perceptual, attentional, cognitive, social, motivational and emotional determinants of mobility and traffic behaviour. One of the most prominent behavioural 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 a rather heuristic nature, e.g. risk theories like Wilde's risk-homeostasis, Fuller's task capability model, and thus are not sufficiently precise to allow for concrete behavioural prediction and control. This is partly due to the importance of individual differences, a major topic of psychology which in traffic and transportation has not yet been sufficiently accounted for. On the other hand, social-psychological attitude-behaviour models, such as Ajzen's theory of planned behaviour, 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):

Table of contents
1 Areas of traffic psychology
2 References
3 Further reading

Areas of traffic psychology

Behaviour and accident research

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 behaviour depends on the development of valid and reliable models about the role of human factors in mobility behaviour and especially driver performance. Psychological traffic accident and behaviour research deals with, e.g.,

Accident prevention and improvement of traffic safety

especially education and information, but overall following the “4 E’s”: enforcement, education, engineering, encouragement/economy. Main goal is promoting safety by influencing and modifying behaviour with 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

Main objective is user-oriented and best-usable supply and design. This includes differentiation between transportation needs of special groups (elderly, handicapped, young people etc.). Main topics are

Vehicle construction and design

Psychology in car manufacturing traditionally deals with questions of ergonomics, but since the 1980´s new in-car devices as well as related new infrastructure has emerged as a rapidly growing field. Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and new information systems are designed to support the driver in a suitable and 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 defining the technical requirements, human-centred development, usability of ADAS, operability of human-machine interfaces, behavioural adaptation and risk compensation, acceptance of innovations, and social impacts.

Psychological assessment and counselling / rehabilitation

for drivers who have become conspicuous: driver selection, 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

Parts of the mentioned domains not only apply to road traffic but also to rail and air transport. Nevertheless, rail and flight psychology have historically developed in part separately from the dominantly road-related traffic psychology. One major new direction in rail as well as in flight psychology is the focus shift from the professional operator (selection and training) to the customer perspective (quality of service, usability).


From its very beginning, traffic psychology in research and practice has followed an interdisciplinary approach and has shared common topics especially with 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 traffic participants 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, has its origin in people’s desires, decisions and behaviour – and these might be influenced. The main accident causes are human errors and maladaptive behaviour, accounting alone or in interaction with roadway or vehicle-related causes for more then 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 1980´s.


Further reading

Relevant Journals

Research Organisations / Online Resources