Unskilled and unaware of it (re-post)

It was pointed out to me that I haven’t posted anything for weeks. It will be a few more before the project that has been taking up my time is out of the way. Here, then, is something I wrote way back in November 2010, which seemed relevant given the latest Department for Transport “please play nice on the roads” marketing campaign. If I were writing it today, I’d mention a million other things, and probably do away with the sarcastic transport mode tribalism that amused me so when this blog was young. But I’m not.

In the War Bulletin this week I mentioned a study that found drivers to be at fault in 87% of car/bicycle collisions.  According to the press release and coverage, the study included (but was not limited to) giving cyclists in Melbourne helmetcams, and analysing the footage of 54 “events”, including 2 collisions.  It sounds like the study has a number of limitations — it’s difficult to draw general conclusions about collisions from only 2 of them, and the results were only ever going to apply to the helmet-law and vehicular-cycling environment of Melbourne, and even then only to experienced cyclists who (presumably) were aware that that their own behaviour was being recorded.

The study was conducted by the Monash University Accident Research Centre, who I am sure did a good job.  But unfortunately nothing resembling it appears in their reports and publications, and I can find no evidence that the original research has been made public yet.  (Allowing the world’s media to uncritically churn your press release without being able to see the actual details of the work — and perhaps more importantly, before your fellow academics are allowed to review what you have done — is rather bad form.)  So there’s not really anything more we can say until we can see the study itself, and we may yet find that everything that has been said was wrong.

But the reported findings do fit with what we already know about accident causes and driver behaviour.

The Motorist attitude to their own collisions and near-collisions is a particularly interesting field.  When one suggests that speed cameras might be a good thing, for example, somebody will always pop up to declare that they have been driving at 90mph for decades and never caused a single accident, because they are a perfect driver who knows exactly when speed is appropriate. And it might be true: some people are good drivers and some people are bad drivers.  Trouble is, the driver himself can never know which he is: all drivers believe themselves to be above average.  Everybody is seeing bad driving, but nobody admits to doing it.

In Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt documents the details of the phenomenon of drivers unable to recognise their own lack of skill.  A large part of it he puts down to a lack of feedback.  For example, in the Monash helmetcam study, there were a mere 2 collisions, but there were 6 near-collisions and 46 “other incidents” (the classic Heinrich triangle).  These “other incidents” correspond to those situations where we notice people driving badly.  They occur because the driver failed to spot a hazard or failed to recognise as a hazard something that they did see.  By definition, if they did not see or did not recognise, the driver will never have been aware of the situation.  They will reach their destination assuming that they had done a great job, oblivious to the bad driving that had been recorded.  That’s probably what happened in 52 out of the Monash group’s 54 “events”.

And when the driver does finally notice that they have just been in a near collision, they can congratulate themselves for having the skill to have avoided an actual collision.

Thus reassured of their own driving skills, on the few occasions when they do get some feedback, they find ways to dismiss it.  That horn honk wasn’t aimed at me, or if it was, it must be because the other driver is an impatient egotistical bad driver who wouldn’t recognise good driving like mine.  The police pulled me over because they have a quota to fill, or because they’re anti-Motorist, not because I was driving dangerously.  After all, I already know that I am not a dangerous driver.

And then they crash, and it was an accident, bad luck, a momentary loss of concentration, beyond one’s control.  They couldn’t have caused it, because they already know from their experience and their long record of not causing accidents that they must be a good driver.

The evidence from driving simulation experiments shows that drivers can’t accurately remember what was happening in the lead up to the crash — what they saw and heard, who else was on the road and where and which order and when they appeared; what they were thinking and where they were looking and when they last checked their mirrors.  So they can unconsciously fill in these details with whatever makes them feel the least uncomfortable.

When drivers are shown videos of their driving (from helmetcams, or, as Vanderbilt discusses, Drivecam), most of them are surprised to discover that they have many more bad habits than they were aware of.  And that can create some uncomfortable cognitive dissonance for them, with attempts to deny or justify their behaviour, or, as with speeding, attempts to redefine it as safe.

It’s important to know these things about driver psychology if you’re trying to create a marketing campaign to make drivers be nice, or design ways to rehabilitate careless and dangerous drivers (how does sending a dangerous driver on their way with a £60 fine help anybody when the driver doesn’t have the skills to figure out what they are doing wrong?), or wondering whether to send your helmetcam footage to Roadsafe to be passed on to the offending driver.

And it’s important to know these things about driver psychology when deciding whether motor vehicles can ever share nicely with vulnerable road users.

3 thoughts on “Unskilled and unaware of it (re-post)”

  1. Worth re-posting for the phrase “transport mode tribalism”, I’d say.

    I didn’t find this piece particularly “sarcastic” but I would say you’re not describing “driver psychology”, you’re talking about “everybody psychology” – and implicitly pointing that motorized vehicles are inherently dangerous because we all have pedestrian-based brains.

    (Funnily enough, I’ve just finished drafting something about this myself. You are never alone on the internet)

  2. I think that those who think of themselves as good drivers could be divided in 2 categories:
    A. those who believe they drive reasonably well. These are usually amenable to reason and can mend their ways if shown how.
    B. those who have this “I’m super” aura around them, and think they’re above average, whatever they do is right and nothing bad can ever happen to them. These are the hardest (if not impossible) to mend and I believe the most dangerous in any setting, not just the road. Unfortunately, there’s just too many of them around

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