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"Driving me crazy"

When weather conditions are inclement, I notice more than usual the bad drivers on the road. Snow seems to particularly bring out the foolish in people, who think that compacted snow and ice on the road will have no impact on grip, steering, or stopping distances.

This morning, for instance, a truck got stuck just outside our house. It was trying to turn around, and got stuck sideways across the middle of the road, unable to go forwards or backwards – the wheels just span. I went out to offer assistance (not least so my wife could get out of the drive!). While I was digging out around the wheels (in the middle of the road) 4 or 5 cars came past at a not inconsiderable speed, through the narrow gap left behind the truck – through virgin snow – only a foot or two away from me. What possesses people to drive so dangrously and inconsiderately?

I freely confess that bad driving is one of my pet peeves. On my daily cycle to work I see a lot of it, and you only have to spend 5 minutes on the motorway to see speeding, tail-gating, lane drifting, undertaking, swerving off to junctions, cutting up.

Naturally I consider myself to be a good driver – indeed all the surveys seem to show that the vast majority of drivers consider themselves to be a “better than average” driver. Clearly this is a nonsense; less than half of drivers can be better than average, by definition. So why is this?

I’ve not fully unpacked it, but I think some of the factors are as follows.

Firstly, there can be a lot of kudos / self-esteem associated with driving, and car ownership. No one wants to admit being a bad driver any more than being bad in bed, or a boring person to be stuck with. Some things attract an almost perverse anti-pride – “I’m so bad at maths”, but everyone wants to be a good driver. Cars are the keys to adulthood and independence. We know it’s potentially lethal to be a bad driver, so perhaps we subconciously avoid assessing ourselves, for fear of discovering that we shouldn’t be driving?

Secondly, in a global sense, Brits actually are quite good drivers. The roads are in good condition, cars are in good condition, the laws are sensible and enforced. It is unusual and note-worthy to see outrageously dangerous drivers in this country (so much so they can make TV programmes about them). The TV programmes don’t help here, either, as any of us can watch them and say “I’m a much better driver than that”. I suspect the general high standard contributes to our own assessments – we simply don’t notice the 99 other drivers who are driving well, we notice the single idiot and think “What an idiot – I’m a much better driver than that.” The incorrect leap is then taken “.. therefore I’m better than average” rather than “I’m somewhere in the range 2%-100%”. That said, it remains a sad fact that almost 2,000 a year are killed on the roads – more than 5 people every day – with a further estimated 80,000 seriously injured.

Then there’s the ambiguity of words. What does being a “good driver” entail? How do you measure it – Safety? Adherence to the Highway Code? Consideration of other drivers? Reaction time? Anticipation? Ability to handle the car at speed? The difficulty is on the one hand you’ve got the little old lady, who wobbles along at 5mph the 2 miles to the corner shop. She has never had an accident, any points on her licence, or insurance claims. On the other hand, you have, say, Jenson Button, who (in his day job) drives very fast, skids round corners, and has had multiple high-speed accidents, and has written off several cars.

This leads into my last point, which is perhaps the crucial one – and that is subjectivity and blindspots. We never get to observe or assess our own driving, and can carry on oblivious to the mayhem around us. If I sail merrily through a red light without noticing it, then by definition I haven’t noticed it! It’s an appalling piece of driving which doesn’t ‘count’ against me in my own assessment, because I don’t realise I’ve done it. Similarly if a stretch of road is very icy, but it happens to be straight and empty, I might drive too fast without realising I have no steering or brakes. If, by the time I need to brake, the icy stretch is over, I’ll never know I was driving badly. Or if I’m driving without my headlights on, I am unaware that other cars can’t see me (after all, I can see them), and if someone pulls out in front of me that’s their bad driving, not mine. And, let’s be honest, if someone hoots or flashes us, or instinctive reaction is more likely to be “stop hooting you jerk!” then “what am I doing wrong”? Of course if you throw drink into the equation, then judgment goes right of the window – we are unable to drive safely, and unable to recognise that fact. And if you’re looking at your phone, or trying to arbitrate a fight in the back-seat, or are otherwise distracted, you will have no idea how many near misses you had, or what dangers you avoided by luck.

The antidote is probably self-awareness and reflection – or possibly being videoed and being made to watch it back. There are clearly objective pointers, such as points on the licence, traffic violation fines, being pulled over by the police, involvement in accidents, awareness of adherence (or otherwise) to the Highway Code. Then there’s more subtle cues, such as near misses, ‘interactions’ with other drivers, feedback from other people (although this can be a touchy subject!). Scares help too – jumping on the brake pedal, finding out nothing happens, but getting away with it would hopefully be a learning exercise in the right way!

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