Why We’re Not Naturally Good Drivers

How the Dunning-Kruger Effect kills tens of thousands of US drivers every year

Image credit: Montgomery Community Media

When I first arrived in the USA back in 1991 I was appalled by the atrocious standard of driving and not at all surprised by the subsequent discovery that the typical US driver has far more collisions (mainly low-speed, in parking lots and going through stop signs) than the typical Northern European driver.

This is because the USA is such a large country and thanks to energetic lobbying by the automobile industry and the oil industry (e.g. paying off pliable politicians) in the 1920s and 1930s, it’s been designed largely to ensure the necessity of having an automobile in order to accomplish even the most basic tasks of everyday living.

In Europe you can walk from your home to school, walk to the shops, and walk to the local park to play with your children. In the USA, thanks to zoning regulations, everything is as far from everything else as it is physically possible to be. This means folk have to drive everywhere.

Which in turn means that the typical US driving test has to be so basic and so easy to pass that anyone can get their license. Really: if a hamster could reach the pedals, hamsters would get US driver’s licences.

This means that the roads are full of people who don’t actually know how to drive competently. As everyone is like this, however, no one realizes the scale of the problem. The everyday hazards of the road are assumed to be normal. Why not drive with our left wrist draped limply over the top of the steering wheel or our left hand clutching the wheel at the 3-o’clock position? What could possibly go wrong? Why not lurch left before making a right-turn and then hand-over-hand wrestle the wheel into some semblance of what we nearly-almost need to crab around the corner more or less in the correct lane (almost…)? All the resulting accidents aren’t our fault because, hey, everyone drives like this!

The less we know about something, the better we imagine ourselves to be at it. This is a well-studied phenomenon and it’s named after the two psychologists who first began to investigate it many years ago: the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The upshot is that the more incompetent someone is, the less they believe they need to learn formally how to do the thing they think they’re naturally great at.

I passed my UK driving test at the age of seventeen. It’s a far more stringent test than anything in the USA, but even then I knew I didn’t really know how to drive. My tester was an instructor with the Institute of Advanced Motorists (nowadays called IAM Roadsmart) and all through my test he explained the difference between what I was doing (which was sufficient to pass the test with no demerits) and what a competent driver would do. This made such an impression on me that I signed up for the Advanced Driver Course, a 3-month endeavor based on the UK Police Class One program.

Once I knew how to drive adequately I could see all the mistakes and omissions I’d been making before. Most of driving is about observation and forward planning; only twenty percent is about advanced vehicle control. But if you’ve never driven on a skid-pan, how will you react to hitting black ice at fifty miles an hour on a bend in the road at night? If you don’t know how to hold the steering wheel and steer properly, how will you adjust for sudden hazards (like an oncoming driver lurching incompetently into your lane…)? If you don’t understand concepts like polar moment, pitch and yaw, hysteresis, breakaway points, cadence braking, and so on, how can you control your vehicle when things go wrong?

Sure, modern safety features increasingly compensate for human incompetence with anti-lock breaks, lane departure control, stability control, and so forth. But wouldn’t it be better in the first place to avoid 99% of the accidents that are caused by basic human mistakes?

I went on to take courses in pursuit driving, rally driving, escape & evasion, and various off-road options. After more than forty years of dedication I consider myself an adequate driver and as I age I’m increasing my margin of error to account for the fact that inevitably I’m slowing down. I will re-test at age seventy and every five years thereafter (though I’ll pay for someone to evaluate me on a yearly basis, as a lot can deteriorate between seventy and seventy-five).

Most people reading this will think either, “I don’t need to do any of that ’cause I’m a naturally good driver just like my dad who taught me” or “this guy is way too intense!”

But think about it for a moment: piloting two tons of steel at high speed (anything over 20mph is high speed with that sort of mass in the equation) is a non-trivial task especially when everyone else on the road is basically incompetent. Some people have a fear of flying but we are literally thousands of times more likely to be injured or killed on the way to the airport than to suffer any mishap once aboard the aircraft.

We humans are useless at risk-assessment. We normalize the daily dangerous yet over-react to the highly unlikely.

Even in the USA, with its insane gun ownership, a US citizen is many times more likely to be injured or killed in a road traffic accident than to be on the receiving end of a bullet. And that’s because of incompetent driving.

The good news would be if there were advanced driver training resources in the USA. I looked, and the only one I was able to find in all of California was in Los Angeles, started by two British expatriates. But it went out of business because everyone thought they didn’t need training, because everyone is a “naturally good driver.” Which is hilarious if you’ve ever driven in Los Angeles.

All the other so-called “Advanced” training places just offer basic driver education for the standard California test.

Why does it even matter? One example out of many: some years ago I was driving in Marin County down Highway 101. Traffic was significant but moving at normal speeds (around 60mph). As always I was observing front, sides, and rear, constantly running scenarios in my mind. What if the truck three vehicles ahead suffers an explosive tire decompression? What are my options? What if the Mustang driven by that teenage girl swerves into the Toyota driven by that myopic Asian woman alongside her? What if…?

We were in the left-most lane and I was preparing to shed speed as nearly all US drivers fail to compensate for inclines; thus everyone slows down and the longer the incline the greater the ultimate speed loss, leading to a sea of red brake lights ahead. Then, on the decline, everyone speeds up (without being aware of it) often reaching 20mph or even 30mph above the posted limit.

I noticed that seven cars ahead, in the lane to our immediate right, a woman driver in a Nissan pickup was applying makeup using her rear-view mirror. Ahead of her a Chevy van was slowing on the incline. The gap between the Nissan and the Chevy was closing rapidly and the woman was still applying her makeup. I transitioned our vehicle from the left-most lane to the right-most lane so that if necessary I could make use of the side of the road to evade any consequences.

Just as we reached the right-most lane the makeup woman noticed the Chevy and hit her brakes hard, causing her vehicle to slew to the left (her brakes and/or tires being defective in some way) which resulted in her hitting the vehicle on her left. The impacted vehicle braked sharply, causing the tailgater behind to slam into it. Meanwhile makeup woman had over-compensated by wrestling her steering wheel too far to the right, causing her Nissan to slam into the vehicle on her left, which then also moved right, hitting the vehicle to its right, which was a tiny SmartCar. Add in the various brake lights suddenly illuminating and two more tailgating collisions, and the situation had gone from normal rubbish driving to potentially lethal accident in less than three seconds. The SmartCar span wildly, totally out of control.

I’d already braked and had ascertained the safety of using the tarmac on the side of the freeway so it was easy to swerve around the SmartCar that was now in front of us. I read in the local newspaper a couple of days later that nineteen vehicles in all had been damaged in the incident. But my vehicle wasn’t one of them because I’d been applying basic observation, planning ahead, and safe vehicle control. It wasn’t sexy or dramatic (and in fact my daughter never even realized what was happening, as she was texting a friend and I didn’t need to make any abrupt inputs to keep us out of trouble) but it saved a lot of drama.

So here’s the question: if you have kids, wouldn’t you prefer that they could drive adequately instead of incompetently like everyone else? Or are you totally OK with getting a call in the middle of the night to let you know that your child is in hospital because they were involved in a road traffic accident?

Here’s some food for thought: despite having wide open and mostly straight roads, and despite towns being built for motor vehicles, more than two million people suffer permanent life-changing injuries from road traffic accidents every single year, and over thirty-seven thousand are killed. That’s despite the airbags and crumple zones and seatbelts and collision warning systems and stability control systems and safety cages.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time folks learned to drive adequately instead of being content to lurch optimistically in the belief that “it’ll never happen to me.”

The only problem is: there’s no one around to teach the basics. But if enough people want something, it will happen. So write to the UK’s IAM Roadsmart at support@iam.org.uk and maybe if enough people ask, they’ll set something up in the USA. It’s long, long overdue.

Info about the UK Advanced Driver training: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IAM_RoadSmart

An example of narrative during a driving exercise: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82HjSq9YFyY

USA road traffic accident information: https://www.driverknowledge.com/car-accident-statistics/

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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