Skip to main content

A Gun in the Vehicle Triggers Aggressive Driving

The fast and the furious and their firearms.

Debates about "open carry" laws usually revolve around gun owners' rights. The psychological effect of having all those guns around is seldom discussed—which is odd, considering that 50 years of research suggests the mere presence of a firearm tends to bring out people's aggressiveness.

There is now evidence that this dynamic extends to a specific and dangerous scenario: driving an automobile.

In a newly published study, "people drove more aggressively when a gun was present in their car—even though they did not put the gun there," reports a research team led by Brad Bushman of Ohio State University.

The finding is particularly disturbing given that "aggressive driving accounts for more than half of all traffic fatalities," according to the American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, featured 60 university students. After filling out a questionnaire designed to determine their inherent aggressiveness, each participant was escorted into a driving simulator, which included a driver seat and passenger seat.

It appears that guns can kill people even without being fired.

Half of the participants entered to find "an unloaded black airsoft training pistol on the passenger seat, which looks like a real 9mm semi-automatic handgun." They were told to "Please leave the gun exactly where it is. It is unloaded. It is for a different study involving police officers."

The other half found a tennis racket on the passenger seat. They were similarly told to ignore it.

Each student then took the driving test, in which they reacted to "five frustrating events" including a traffic jam, a stop light, and another car that "pulled out in front of the participant from a side road." The researchers noted how often each participant engaged in "two primary measures of aggressive driving—tailgating and speeding."

They report that the students were more likely to tailgate when there was a gun on the passenger seat, as opposed to a tennis racket. In addition, "the mere presence of a gun increased speeding regardless of the frustrating event participants encountered in the driving scenario."

Bushman and his colleagues concede that this is a small, "exploratory study." But, as noted earlier, its results are consistent with a whole lot of other research, including a 2006 study that found handling a gun increased both testosterone and aggression among men. (Forty-five of the 60 participants in this new study were male.)

The implication is that, if you carry a gun for "protection," you may actually be placing yourself and others at greater risk of harm, since the weapon unconsciously inspires unsafe driving. And that's a real problem.

The Miami Herald recently reported that "last year, the Florida Department of Transportation reported that aggressive driving-related fatalities had increased by 12 percent since 2011. The state counted 1,873 such deaths from 2011-2015."

It appears that guns can kill people even without being fired.