If there’s one thing we’ve learned this election season, it’s that some people don’t need much coaxing to unleash their anger on supporters of the opposing candidate. Consider the acts of violence at more than a dozen rallies for Donald Trump—including the September incident when a 69-year-old protester claimed she was punched in the face by a Trump supporter, which caused her to fall over her oxygen tank and require hospitalization.
If there’s a line too far for the most aggressive partisans, it seems we haven’t yet found it. And when that frustration is backed not by knuckles, but by the steel frame of a moving vehicle, that makes for potentially dangerous conditions on the roads. Such is the reality for people who chose to proclaim their political alliance on the bumper of their cars, says Dr. Leon James, professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii and author of Road Rage and Aggressive Driving.
“It is common to express aggressiveness against people who disagree in their support or loyalty for some group or individual,” he says, which he adds is especially true in the time of elections when blue stickers may make some drivers see red—and vice versa.
And it appears to be especially, especially true during this historically bitter battle between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Earlier this year, a Washington man admitted to vandalizing a car adorned with a Trump bumper sticker. When confronted by police, he said he considered the sticker to be a “hate symbol” and said he “improved the community” by slashing the car’s tires and dumping yogurt through the sunroof. That prompted the car’s owner to remove the sticker because he didn’t want to put his wife “in any danger” on the roadways.
Danielle Corcione says she often felt targeted while driving in Nebraska with a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker, especially by older, white men. “Sometimes they would flip me off or they would look at me,” she says, noting the incidents ended as soon as she removed her sticker.
As uneasy as it made her, she says she can relate to the frustration that can boil up when faced with the viewpoint she fundamentally opposes. “Whenever I see anti-abortion billboards or something just really conservative, I kind of get that feeling inside of me that like, ‘Ok, I probably wouldn’t have been triggered by this frustration had I not passed by that billboard. That kind of put me in a bad mood,’” she says. “The difference with bumper stickers is if you are a driver that kind of puts you in a dangerous situation as opposed to a billboard you can just drive by.”
That is what makes bumper stickers more of a liability, says Dr. James. “Car stickers are in your face and cannot be avoided by other drivers,” he explains, adding that kind of trigger is all it takes for some drivers to unleash aggression.
Eliciting that kind of response may not be a risk worth taking, considering a recent study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found nearly 80 percent of people on the roads already admitted they “expressed significant anger, aggression or road rage behind the wheel at least once in the past year.” And that wasn’t during an election cycle. As Jurek Grabowski, Director of Research for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said in a statement about the research, “Far too many drivers are losing themselves in the heat of the moment and lashing out in ways that could turn deadly.”
But, as research has shown, the people with the bumper stickers are also more prone to escalating tense situations on the roads. According to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, the existence of bumper stickers is a big red flag that the person behind the wheel may lash out.
“The more markers a car has, the more aggressively the person tends to drive when provoked,” William Szlemko, a co-author of the study, told the Washington Post. He explained this seems to be because those people view their vehicles in the same way they view their homes or bedroom—as their “primary territory” that should be defended.
The way the driver chooses to “defend” may just present in strange ways when politics are tied up in it all. Take the experience of Los Angeles-based photographer Alex Stone, who kept his camera running when a man with a “No Hillary” bumper sticker got extremely territorial. As Stone described the experience in the caption of his YouTube video:
[A guy tried to run me over today… Along with the owner of the car I was shooting. In the past 10 years of shooting cars nothing like this has every happened. ... Seconds before starting to record the man drove up and said we were shooting on a ‘private road’ which was false. I told him that we would be out in a few minutes and he yelled “FUCK YOU”, that’s when I started recording.]
The Ramona Sentinel later reported the anti-Clinton motorist was charged with suspicion of felony assault with a deadly weapon, misdemeanor battery and misdemeanor vandalism.
Although most encounters between drivers with opposing political viewpoints don’t escalate quite so far, that is a risk worth considering before slapping a Clinton or Trump sticker on a car.