It Won't Happen to Me

Have you ever met anyone who would admit to being less than a better than average driver? Those of us who are completely honest may say so but our behaviour behind the wheel could indicate differently. It's called optimism bias and it is something that we are all affected by. We are all optimistic about our personal capabilities and that includes our driving skills.

We've had lots of experience driving (that traffic ticket was the cop making a quota), we've never been involved in a crash (that fender bender was pretty minor and won't happen again) and all of those bad things that we hear about involve other drivers (they're the ones that need to pay attention and drive safely). So, sure, we can cut corners a little by exceeding the speed limit (crash risk increases 10X at 25 km/h over), sending a couple of text messages (crash risk increases 20X), or having a couple of drinks before we leave (crash risk at least double). It's pretty clear that the problem isn't us and our optimism bias will allow us to discount the risk until something really does happen that shows us otherwise.

One of the most common responses from drivers I stopped for a traffic violation was to try to justify to me why they had done what they were stopped for. I think that this was because they had weighed the risk and decided that their needs were more important than obeying the traffic rules. Their experience had taught them that this had not caused problems in the past so it was acceptable to do it again that day. Their assessment of the risk minimized the possibility of my presence and being involved in a collision.

Remember ICBC telling us that driver education for new drivers didn't improve their crash risk outcomes? Overconfidence is not a good thing when you are learning new skills and it appears that the knowledge gained led to some thinking that they were more skillful drivers than they really were. The driving skills training alone did not contribute to a reduction in crash risk. Stressing accountability for errors could be more beneficial here.

Making a change in risk perception and driver attitude can overcome our optimism bias, but it is not a simple task. Impaired driving is a good example of this. During my lifetime, the attitude of making it a contest to get home after drinking has changed to either limiting your consumption or arranging for a designated driver. However, I also know that it is not difficult to find an impaired driver on our highways now.

I used to park my marked police vehicle in a bar parking lot about an hour before closing time. I would see someone exit the door, look at me and go back into the bar. A little while later that person would peek out the door and still seeing me there would go back inside. This might repeat before bar staff moved everyone outside and locked the doors. Now we had a group of impaired drivers standing there watching me and waiting for someone brave or foolish enough to get into their vehicle and lead me away so that the rest could make their escape.

We still have a long way to go instilling responsibility in road users today.


It Won't Happen to Me

I think that one of the reasons that new drivers tend to become over-confident is that less than 10% take any formal driver training.  they are trained at the 'mom and dad driving school' which only provides limited experience (limited by the knowledge base of the parents and their own limited experience behind the wheel).  How many get any exposure to the limits of reaction & emergency response?  Mom and Dad probably can't provide this and are probably scared to try. 

Then the driver testing process for licencing doesn't test those skills either.  So, off they go into the world with the government having confirmed they now have all the knowledge they need and all the skill they need to cope with traffic and all the environmental driving conditions they will face.

When the real world crashes in on their idealistic self-perception they find out what their real skills are in an emergency, and have about 2 seconds to do it perfectly.  Guess what - most can't, and then they get a real world learning experience and attitude adjustment.  Good thing cars are so good at absorbing energy and protecting occupants.  It saves most from the results of their own behaviour and limitations.

Compare this to pilot training.


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