Bad Driving – What are we thinking – Part TWO

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Whilst involved in 15 years of Driving Instructor Training, I met very many self-confessed “Expert Drivers”  who often demonstrated an abject lack of fundamental skills during preparation for the Part Two test of driving ability.


4. … yet we behave more aggressively to those of ‘lower status’

One interesting paradox is that even though we’re prone to dehumanising other drivers, we still act according to social status.Decades of research shows that prolonged honking, tailgating, and other aggressive behaviours are more likely if the aggressor believes they are the more important driver. What’s particularly interesting is that these judgements can be based simply on the vehicles involved, with no knowledge of the person behind the wheel: larger cars generally outrank smaller cars and newer cars trump older ones. Drivers of more expensive cars are also more likely to behave aggressively toward pedestrians.

5. We believe we can see everything happening around us …

Our senses receive far more information than we can process at once, which makes brain systems of attention crucial for focusing resources on the most important events. Most of the time we fail to appreciate the enormous amount of information we miss, and this can add to a false sense of security on the road.

6. … yet we also think other drivers can’t see us

This one is for all the nose pickers and earwax excavators. It isn’t really an issue of safety (or is it?), but you know who you are and unfortunately so do we.

7. We attribute near misses to a lack of ability in other drivers …

In general, we fail to account for situational reasons as to why other drivers might get in our way or seem to act dangerously. Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error – we tend to attribute the mistakes of others to their personality or ability (“what an idiot!”, “what a terrible driver!”), while excusing our own errors as situational (“that bit of road is dangerous”, “I had to drive that fast or I would have been late”).

8. … while at the same time overestimating our own skills

If you think you’re a highly skilled driver, the chances are you’re not. About 80-90% of drivers believe they have above-average ability, and the more skilled we believe we are at something, the less likely it is to be true. This tendency for us to be blind to our own incompetence is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Of course, the upside is that if you believe you’re a terrible driver, you’re probably not as bad as you think.

9. We drive more recklessly when we’re going solo

We generally drive less carefully and more aggressively when we’re alone than when we have passengers. It isn’t clear why this is, or whether we’re conscious of this change in our behaviour.

10. We believe hands-free car phones are safe.

In the UK it is illegal to use a hand-held mobile phone while driving, whereas hands-free alternatives are allowed. This is a great example of the law lagging behind science: evidence shows that using a hands-free car phone is no less dangerous than talking on a hand-held mobile phone. What makes these phone conversations unsafe isn’t so much the act of holding the phone as being distracted by the conversation. The lack of body language makes such conversations especially demanding, requiring us to commit more cognitive resources and further distracting us from the road.

Driving is one of the most complicated behavioral tasks we accomplish in our lives. The fact that it seems so mundane – and that there are relatively few accidents – is a testament to the elegance of highway engineering, the genius of traffic signalling, and the sophistication of the human brain. Still, next time you’re behind the wheel and feel annoyed, frustrated or have an itchy nose, ask yourself: are you falling prey to any of the above?


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