Why Someone Speeds Up When You’re Trying to Pass Them on the Highway

a scene of a highway at night in downtown Seattle
Image by Matthew Rutledge / CC BY

“Oh of course you’re gonna slow down now,” Justin says, shaking his head. He swears colorfully. So colorfully. It’s a veritable rainbow of profanity.

The driver in question has just committed a pet peeve of his — and of many other people. It’s a very familiar frustrating situation: Another driver is going rather slow on the highway. And when you go to pass them, they speed up then, making it difficult for you to pass them. And even after you manage to pass them, they decide they need to speed up and pass you. But once they do, once they’re in front of you once again, they slow down. To the previous speed. The one that made you pass them in the first place.

And now you’re stuck behind them but not sure you’ll be able to ever do anything about it. Since they’re likely to speed up and then slow down. Over and over again.

Ugh, right?

“It’s really the worst,” I say to Justin.

“Agreed,” he says, before diverting his attention to another driver who is doing something dangerous up ahead with lane usage.

Even Responsible Driving Is an Exercise in Divided Attention

Driving a car can be a very dangerous endeavor. Ideally, we’d all be diligent, paying constant attention all the time to what we’re doing. But sadly, this isn’t the case. Even if you set aside the many people who divide their attention quite questionably in an obvious manner by doing things like texting while driving, even responsible drivers are on auto-pilot a great deal of the time.

Even if you’re focused on driving, the very nature of the task divides your attention between various focal points. For example, you may be focused on where the lines on the road are and ensuring that you stay within them, even in areas where they aren’t well painted or the lanes shift for some reason (construction, etc.). You also may very well be looking up ahead into the distance as you drive to watch what’s going on up ahead, to give yourself more time to stop or switch lanes if you need to. You could be scanning breakdown lanes or residential sidewalks for pedestrians that might suddenly enter the roadway to tend to a broken vehicle or illegally cross to the other side.

And you could be looking at the dashboard gauges: To see how much fuel you have left. Whether that light that just came on was a check engine light or a low tire pressure warning. Or how fast you’re driving.

There’s a lot going on when you’re driving. Unless you have cruise control set, it’s very easy to lose track of the speed you’re travelling, to go on mental auto-pilot and drive either too fast or too slow. Because our perception of how fast we’re going is often relative. When our surroundings are stationary, there’s not that much visual difference to the untrained eye between driving, say, 60 and 75 miles per hour. But when other cars are treating us like we’re moving fast or slow, well, that’s a different story altogether.

So the very moment someone passes us, it can be cause to check our speedometer and realize we’re going too slowly. A battle of wills can often ensue at this time, a flurry of speeding and passing, depending on the personalities of the drivers involved and their respective driving styles. And yet, once that battle is over, it’s back to auto-pilot.

Like most people, I don’t consciously believe that I’ve been the asshole driver who speeds up and then slows down. I consider myself to be the protagonist of this (and every) driving tale, the one who operates and monitors my own speed diligently and sensibly. But statistically, this is probably a line of bull I’m feeding to myself. Like most people, I’ve probably been that exact asshole driver without even realizing it.

Social Comparison Theory and Speed Perception

It’s a very interesting phenomenon and clear evidence of social comparison at work. Social comparison theory is an older psychological concept (first described by Festinger), a parent theory to a lot of newer, more specific psychological study. But essentially, social comparison theory states that people tend to evaluate themselves based on what other people around them are doing. People are constantly comparing themselves to others and evaluating themselves based on those comparisons, whether or not they’re consciously aware that they’re doing it. This is especially true when it comes to evaluating themselves in ambiguous or relative contexts, which would certainly apply to the perception of how fast one is driving (especially since most people do not drive with their eyes glued to the speedometer, and to do so would likely be dangerous).

When someone begins to pass you, you start to compare their driving behavior to your own (which means becoming acutely aware of how you’re doing). In certain instances, realizing that you’re driving too slowly is a form of rude awakening: Oh shit! I’m not keeping up with the flow of traffic… better do something about that. Which can easily result in speeding up.

But what if it’s a posturing thing? What if you take the fact that someone’s passing you as a form of disrespect? What if it feels competitive and you can’t stand the idea that someone is passing you? (Which is something I can’t say I experience readily myself as I’m not a very competitive person, and we’re all commuting and not driving race cars, but I do recognize that some people experience this effect and seem to have intertwined their ego and their driving speed.)

Social comparison still comes into play into this second scenario, with a competitive driving lens. The only difference from the first example is that your goal is a bit different. In the first situation, you are trying not to fall behind because of some perceived social responsibility to drive a reasonably brisk speed on the highway, to “keep up with the flow of traffic.”

In the second, you have a vested interest in driving faster than other people, for whatever reason. Perhaps driving quickly is part of your identity. In any event, driving faster than other people is a source of pride and therefore the idea that you’re being passed feels unacceptable.

Alternatively, it could be a defensive reaction to being passed, one in which it’s perceived as an insult. Instead of associating driving quickly with being a “winner,” you might be associating driving slowly with being a “loser,” so you take the fact that they’re passing you as an insult. That it means that they’re calling you a loser.

Again, I’m not sure what this would feel like, since this isn’t part of my values system, the idea that being passed by another car when you’re going a reasonable speed should make you feel worse about yourself and vice versa (that passing someone else should give you an ego boost). It’s just a guess.

Regardless of the self-perceived reason, it’s social comparison in action.

Moments of (Semi-Obnoxious) Zen

Anyway, whenever this happens, I take it as a reminder. To think about how social comparison is playing out in my life. What irrational choices am I making because I’ve compared my life to someone else’s and made faulty snap decisions? And what can I do about it?

Because I like to think I’m never that annoying guy in front of me…. but I probably am. To someone, somewhere, sometime.

In a way, these little interactions with other motorists have become reflection points. Somewhat annoying reflection points (I’ll give you that). But it sure beats road raging.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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