in: Character, Etiquette

• Last updated: June 2, 2021

5 Types of Terrible Drivers: A Dossier from a 1955 Driver’s Ed Manual

Sportsmanlike driving book cover.

Editor’s Note: Published by the American Automobile Association, Sportsmanlike Driving was a popular driver’s education textbook used in high schools across the county during the 1950s. It’s a gem of a book, and what’s so interesting about it, as compared to manuals of today, is the way it frames driving behavior not simply in terms of what is legal and advisable, but in the light of character traits. “The Motor Age Citizen,” the manual argues, “must accept the moral responsibility of properly using the power machines he has devised.”

The excerpts below outline the “mental make-up” of various types of poor drivers, who should ideally be taken “right off the road until their weaknesses are corrected.” The traits of a “top-notch” driver are also illuminated. And the principles in both cases extend wonderfully beyond the road!

Vintage emotions of driving a car illustration.

Driving skillfully and safely in modern traffic is no “cinch.”

The mechanical operations are not difficult for most people to learn. They have become simpler than ever with automatic transmission cars. But there are at least five importance factors, other than mechanical skills, that make expert driving of an automobile a challenging job:

  1. The power and limitations of the car.
  2. The physical features of roads and streets.
  3. The behavior of other highway users.
  4. Changing light and weather conditions.
  5. The make-up of the driver himself.

The driver is the most important factor in keeping driving from being a “cinch.” Automotive engineering may make the car easier to drive. Highway engineering and traffic engineering may make the highways and streets safer to use. Safety devices and clever inventions may help lessen the hazards in unfavorable weather conditions. But, in spite of all such improvements, first-rate driving will always demand that the driver act in accordance with sportsmanlike attitudes.

The mental make-up of a driver is often more important than his skill. It determines what he will do when he has power in his hands.

Bad Risks as Drivers

The Egotist. All babies are normally self-centered. They have not learned how to be unselfish. They have not learned how to share. They are good examples of the perfect egotist.

As people grow out of babyhood, they learn that self is really not the center of the universe. If they develop normally, they become more social; that is, their interests spread out and away from the self, and they see things more and more in the light of public good. They acquire social attitudes.

With his normal psychological make-up, the baby would make the worst possible driver. He would consider nothing but his own interest and immediate desires.

The babyish adult makes a miserable driver for the same reason. He has never outgrown his babyish egotism. He may have had the kind of childhood training that makes grown-up persons act like babies.

Vintage man in suit driving car illustration.

On the highway, this egotistical, babyish type of person betrays himself by such practices as:

  • Pulling out of line to the confusion of others.
  • Stopping or making turns without signaling.
  • Making turns from improper traffic lanes.
  • Cutting in too closely after passing.
  • Not staying on his own side of the road or in his traffic lane.
  • Boasting of breaking traffic laws.
  • Acting as though accidents happen only to others.
  • “Chiseling in,” out of turn.
  • Demanding the right-of-way.
  • Using influence and “pull” for ticket fixing.
  • Parking double, for his own convenience.
  • Parking his car so that it occupies almost two parking spaces.
  • Pulling out from the curb without signaling or looking for approaching cars.

The egotists is a psychological misfit in the traffic picture. He is easily spotted. He is never admired. The habit of thinking of others can keep you from being one.

The Show-off. Like the egotist, the show-off discloses that he has never properly grown up. He has never managed, no matter what his age, to get both feet on the ground and to see himself in his proper place among other men and women. He is like the child who enjoys dangling his lolly-pop in other children’s faces! He is competitive and boastful. Often he is suffering from a sense of inferiority which he is covering up by trying to appear superior. He doesn’t stop to realize how ridiculous he looks to others.

Vintage car driving manual illustration.

The show-off is a bad risk as a driver because of practices like the following:

  • Driving too fast for conditions.
  • Driving more recklessly the larger his audience.
  • Creating near emergencies to prove that he can get out of them.
  • Boasting of his car’s speed and power and of his own skill.
  • Boasting of the time he makes between places.
  • Acting more for showmanship than for sportsmanship.
  • Passing other cars at risky places and talking about his luck.
  • Painting his car with “loud” colors and smart remarks or plastering it with stickers.
  • Being ready to prove he can “stop on a dime.”
  • Being ready to take a chance or to “try anything once.”
  • Being willing to turn the highway into a race track.
  • Boasting that he can drive just as well after a drink or two.
  • Always taking a dare.
  • Passing red lights and stop signs with an air of bravado.
  • Trying to give the impression that he drives like “a man who has been around a lot.”

Admired by none, the “smart-aleck” is likely to think he is admired by all.

Driving manual vintage illustration instruction.

The Over-Emotional. Uncontrolled emotions are another sign of immaturity. A baby does not have the problem of controlling his emotions; he just expresses them. Ability to control emotions and remain calm under stress should develop as you grow older. With proper training and a desire to be mature, such emotional control should show by the time you reach your later teens.

But some persons are never more than adult-sized babies as far as their emotions are concerned. They take the slightest criticism as a personal offense. They whine and sulk and become resentful. Unimportant trifles seem big to them. We say they “make mountains out of molehills.” Their emotional development has been stunted. They have never really grown up. We call them “unstable,” because they cannot be depended on.

Persons with stunted emotional development show characteristic driving faults. Psychological trouble-shooters can spot them because they:

  • Lack presence of mind in emergencies.
  • Get “upset” over trifles, or are nervous in unusual situations.
  • Lose their temper and, consequently, their judgment.
  • Express anger by driving recklessly.
  • Show impatience in traffic jams and start irrational horn-blowing.
  • Flash their lights in the eyes of oncoming drivers.
  • Talk loud, or use profanity.
  • Call traffic officers by abusive names.
  • Resort to boorish crowding and pushing others out of their lanes.
  • Are easily distracted from the main business of driving.

Car accident man yelling vintage illustration.

Childish giving away to emotions is responsible for a great many traffic emergencies and accidents. Regardless of age, people with childish emotional behavior are not worthy of driving licenses.

The Rationalizer. Then there is the person who never learns to face facts squarely. He finds it easy to see a thing the way he wants to see it, rather than the way it really is. He will not admit his own faults. If involved in an accident, he blames the driver of another car, the traffic regulations, the road, a “backseat” driver, his own car – anyone and anything but himself. He lacks courage to admit his own faults.

Such a person is clever at finding plausible-sounding arguments to excuse everything – even though obviously wrong. We call him “rationalizer.” He fails conspicuously in sportsmanlike driving.

The Thwarted. Some persons do absurd things to compensate or make up for failure.

There is a strong desire in man to be masterful, to achieve something, to assert himself and display his power. If circumstances prevent him from showing mastery in one situation, he tries to show it in another. A familiar example is the man who does not amount to much at the office or shop and so tries to lord it over everybody at home.

The unimportant fellow looks for a chance to appear powerful. The really important man doesn’t need to hunt for artificial outlets, for his desires for mastery and self-expression are being satisfied normally.

Vintage man compensates for power with car illustration.

But watch the thwarted man step into a car. Here is power at his disposal! What will he do with it? The psychological trouble-shooter will find him:

  • Insisting on the right-of-way.
  • Arguing a traffic point endlessly.
  • Talking “big” to traffic officers and other drivers.
  • Showing the road practices of the egotist.
  • Bullying other drivers and pedestrians.
  • “Giving his dust” to smaller or older cars.
  • Edging in to cheat someone out of a parking space.
  • Making pedestrians scramble to safety.
  • Not moving over when another driver signals he wants to pass.
  • “Getting even” with drivers who pass him.

He is always trying an artificial boost to his puny self-esteem.

Of course, he shows himself up as an unimportant fellow who is borrowing a feeling of personal power from his car. But the foolish things he does may lead to tragic or expensive accidents. It is disagreeable to be with “rationalizers.” It is worse to find you are one. Forming the habit of facing facts, even though disagreeable, keeps you from being one.

The Mental Make-Up of a Top-Notch Driver

From a psychological point of view, the top-notch driver has, not only motor skill, but balance and self-control. He has good social attitudes. He shows good adjustment and maturity. These characteristics show up in evidences of his:

  • Acceptance of responsibility
  • Self-control
  • Good sportsmanship
  • Forethought
  • Controlled attention
  • Good judgment
  • Good sense of humor

Vintage horsepower illustration driving manual.

Responsibility and Sportsmanship. It is difficult to draw a sharp line between good sportsmanship and a sense of responsibility.

Good sportsmanship is found in people who show fairness, courtesy and reasonableness. Such traits comes from a desire for fair sharing. This desire is an indication of social maturity. It means that the driver senses the traffic situation, not merely from his personal point of view, but from the point of view of other highway users. His driving practices are quite the opposite of those of those babyish, egotistical, over-emotional, unbalanced trouble-makers we have been analyzing. He, too, is easily spotted on the highway. His good attitude and sound actions reflect his mental and emotional maturity. Sound driver instruction helps produce this kind of driver.

Judgment. Good judgment is not the mysterious “gift” that some people suppose. It comes, to a large extent, from a good background of sound training in home and school.

You think more soundly about subjects you thoroughly understand. The business of driving an automobile in traffic is no exception. A background of driver education is the foundation for good driving judgment. Experiences in well-supervised practice driving are good building blocks. They help build both skill and sound attitudes in the top-notch driver.

A driver of good judgment is constantly sizing up the traffic situation and is not caught unawares. He has developed traffic imagination and insight. He makes decisions and reactions that help keep the traffic patterns sane and safe.

Attention. A quality that shows in the driver of mature psychological make-up is controlled attention. The person who cannot control his own attention is not fit to drive a car. Imagine a man steering a fast-moving object on a shared highway with his attention like that of a child, at the mercy of any accidental happening! Attention has to be directed into place and held there.

The psychologically fit driver is able to attend to business. His business is the total traffic pattern. He “drives ahead.” That is, he knows everything that is happening in his whole field of vision that could possibly affect the driving picture. His attention is focused constantly on the path that his car should take, considering all the other factors in the situation.

Vintage car accident driving manaul illustration.It is a fact that there is a strong tendency to steer toward the spot to which you attend. The muscles of your body tend to adjust toward the goal of your attention. You have seen a bicycle rider, for example, turn his wheel toward the spot where he is looking, without knowing he does it. A driver whose attention is so poorly controlled that he turns his head toward distractions is likely to steer his car unconsciously in the same direction.

John Doe was a man of childish, uncontrolled attention. While he was driving, his dog, in the back of his car, made a commotion. John Doe immediately gave it his attention. He looked over his right shoulder, and took his eye from the road. In a split second, his car had crashed into a telephone pole at the right side of the road.

Vintage old woman driving on lawn illustration.

Mrs. Doe thought she could drive down a city street and, at the same time, watch for an obscure house number on the left. She crashed into a car traveling in the left lane, because she unconsciously steered that way.

Situations that threaten to distract the uncontrolled attention of drivers may be:

  • The scene of an accident.
  • Novel things along the route.
  • Fine views.
  • A member of the opposite sex – in or out of the car.
  • A back-seat driver.
  • A bee or wasp in the car.
  • The radio program.
  • A hat blowing off; or things placed on the seat sliding around.
  • Sharp light reflections.
  • Pets and children in the car.
  • A thousand and one other things.

Control, whether of emotions, attitudes, or attention, is a distinguishing characteristic of the person who is psychologically mature.

Vintage driving hazards from driving manual illustration.


Foresight. The best drivers develop a high degree of traffic imagination and foresight. They see and think ahead. They keep control and avoid trouble by recognizing trouble-in-the-making.

School children are walking or playing along the road. One is about to catch a ball. Suppose he misses it. Will he dart after it into the road? The driver who foresees this possibility may save the child’s life.

A parked car some distance ahead has smoke coming from its exhaust. Is it about to pull out into the line of traffic?

Ahead, an impatient driver is nosing out around a truck. He is misjudging your speed as you approach. He will be forced to cut in sharply. Your anticipation of the situation avoids a wreck.

A pedestrian is crossing the street ahead. Will he slip, or become confused, or change his mind and direction? The driver with foresight is prepared.

You observe a slight movement at the left front door of a parked car. Someone is about to step out on the wrong side without knowing that your car is approaching. This may be trouble-in-the-making.

The driver you are following is erratic. His speed is not steady. He slows down at unexpected places without signaling, and then darts on ahead. He does not keep to his side of the center line. You prepare to take no chance with him.

Some distance ahead you see a strip of icy road, a section of wet pavement, a large puddle of water. You anticipate what could happen if you were compelled suddenly to apply your brakes on that particular spot.

The road is emerging from a deep cut through a hill. You know it is a windy day and there will be a strong cross-wind at the edge of the cut. There may be a powerful sideward thrust on your car because of the wind. Your foresight makes you ready for it, and you will not be caught napping at your steering.

You are on a through-traffic street or highway. Ahead is an intersection with a “stop” sign protecting you. You see a car on the cross road moving too rapidly toward the “stop” sign. Will the driver be able to stop where he should? Does he even see the sign? You are aware of the situation. Whatever the other driver does, you are prepared. You are showing foresight.

 The Thrill of Power

Most persons like strong, powerful things and forces. They like mighty seas and high mountains. They are fascinated by brilliant fires and thundering waterfalls, by strong men and forceful machines. They identify themselves with mighty things and get a thrill of reflected power. This is a normal human trait.

So it is not surprising that the power of the automobile is a source of thrill. You can identify yourself with this machine, step into it, drive it yourself, and seem to “step-up” your power. Here, indeed, is an opportunity for glorified self-expression through borrowed power!

But there are two important things for a man to remember when he uses power:

  1. Power has constructive value only when in control. Out of control, it is destructive.
  2. How one uses power discloses just what kind of a person he is, and the degree to which he has reached maturity.

Man is reduced to a weak and foolish-looking creature when the power he is supposed to be directing runs away with him. He faces this fact now with the fission and thermonuclear bombs he has created. Either he controls the power, or it destroys him. Instead of the satisfaction of mastery, he could suffer the disaster of obliteration. It is not simply power that man wants; it is power under control.

All drivers gain a sense of power. Only top-notch drivers gain a sense of power under control.

Any power – whether of money, office, political prominence, or of a fine car – makes a foolish man look more foolish and a wise man look wiser.

What you do wrong as a pedestrian may be mild enough to deceive yourself and others, but when you get behind the wheel of a powerful car, every personal quality you have, good or bad, is magnified. Power in your hands shows up the real you!

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