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Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

Rubbernecking – nature or nurture?

Wednesday, February 11th, 2015

Many of us have been involved in traffic queues and congestion caused by so-called ‘rubbernecking’ by those passing a broken down vehicle or a collision. It’s unfortunate that journalists and police often attribute ‘rubbernecking’ to ‘sick titillation’ or ‘morbid obsession’ because the real reasons are actually much more altruistic than they may seem.
One of the other things to understand is that human beings are social creatures and we’re programmed to be inquisitive. As the famous naturalist Desmond Morris* said “We never stop investigating. We’re never satisfied that we know enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species.”
So when weRubbernecking concept. pass a crash site, or even a broken down vehicle, we’re naturally curious about what has happened. Far from being morbid or seeking titillation, we often want to help in such circumstances.
Picture the scene. You come across a scooter that has broken down on a country lane. There’s every likelihood that you would stop to help the rider, who is by the roadside trying in vain to get it going again. A cyclist also stops to help. Having decided that the only course of action is to call his breakdown recovery company, you would both almost certainly establish that he was ok and didn’t need anything else before continuing on your way. This is a classic example of altruism, as neither you nor the cyclist had anything to gain from the encounter.
When it comes to road traffic incidents there’s a genuine psychological need that’s fulfilled by rubbernecking. As we go through life we try to avoid pain and death as much as possible. We investigate the accidents we see, albeit in a primitive way, to see whether the conditions could apply to us. Carl Jung, one of the great psychiatrists of the 20th century, referred to the phenomena as a ‘corpse obsession’ and it has a logical evolutionary root. After all, if we can find out how someone else was killed or injured, we can try to avoid those circumstances ourselves.
So we have a twofold call on our instincts when we see a crash or broken down vehicle – our instinct to help and our instinct to investigate. In that sense it’s amazing that our roads don’t become gridlocked. To test this out, think of the last time you saw a road traffic incident. Did you gloat about it and find it amusing, or were you saddened and confused about what you could do to help? For most people, the latter is the case.
In describing rubbernecking as ‘seeking titillation’ the police and others are indulging in what psychologists refer to as a ‘fundamental attribution error’. That is to say, we make an incorrect assumption about the motives of others. We see others slowing down to look at the crash scene and say “They’re just gloating”, when in fact that’s far from correct.
So how can we counter this natural tendency to investigate and help? In a situation where there’s a traffic tailback and the emergency services are already in attendance, you need to tell yourself that the best thing you can do is to help keep the traffic flowing freely and not get in the way. It can be a strain to do so but, in essence, it’s that simple. Make sure your conscious thoughts override your emotions and instincts, and just keep going, albeit in a measured fashion.
Of course the opposite is true if you’re the first on the scene of an incident. In that case, follow your instincts to stop, help and investigate. As always, give yourself a moment to think rationally about how you should help. A pause for thought can provide you with a clear set of priorities and prevent minutes of useless and disordered actions.
So, next time you see a traffic tailback with people apparently rubbernecking, don’t think they’re being morbid; remember they’re like you and deep inside they really want to help.
*Morris. D., The Naked Ape: A Zoologists Study of the Human Animal, 1967


Driving Risk Management Ltd

The magnetic draw of the mobile

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

Driver on mobile phoneThe dangers of using mobile phones whilst driving have been well documented. Department of Transport statistics for 2012 showed mobile phone use was a factor in 378 incidents, which caused 548 injuries and 17 deaths. In 2008 a study* by the Transport Research Laboratory showed that texting while driving could increase reaction time by 35%, compared to 21% for smoking cannabis and 12% for being at the legal drink drive limit.

In 2013 a truck driver was seen to delete texts from his phone after he had been involved in a crash that resulted in the death of a thirteen year old girl. That case illustrates the central message in this article – we know the use of mobile phones slows our reaction times, we know we shouldn’t use them while driving and yet a lot of people still do. The question then is why?

In some cases, but by no means all, the problem can be attributed to employers who want to be in contact with their drivers all the time but, in the main, it’s more to do with the modern phenomenon of social media and the habits that it can instil in us. A lot of people will have had the experience of putting something on social media and then thinking “Let’s see if that post gets any likes or increases our followers.” There is a natural desire to be in contact with other human beings because we are social creatures, to the extent that it can often override our use of common sense.

For many of the sub 50 generation there is a natural tendency to answer a text immediately it arrives, despite the fact that the sender won’t even know if the phone is even switched on. It’s one of the most basic and powerful examples of behavioural conditioning in modern life. At that moment when the phone rings, buzzes or bleeps, it’s almost as though we have no other option but to answer it or reply to the text.

The conditioning itself takes place easily. As stated before, we’re naturally social creatures, so our reward for answering the phone is social interaction, and, although a small reward in itself, it’s enough to condition us to respond to the phone, in preference to continuing to deal with the situation we’re in.

In some cases we want to initiate the call to activate the social interaction and the same behavioural influences are brought to bear. We’re effectively rewarded for our efforts. Even drivers who don’t actually use mobile phones when they drive will be aware of that moment when either the phone rings or there’s the buzz of an incoming text, which takes their attention off the road for that vital split second.

That leaves us with the problem of what to do about this situation. For responsible drivers, who are likely to have had some form of advanced or defensive driver training, it’s simple – it’s instinctive to turn the phone off when driving and let that voicemail function do what it was designed to do all along.

But, trained drivers or not, it’s vital that businesses robustly apply their mobile phone policies, even if it means using negative reinforcement to reverse the conditioning effect and improve driver behaviour. The use of mobiles while driving, particularly hand-held, should be a disciplinary offence for the employee, with all the consequences which that brings.

Also I don’t believe I’m alone in saying that we need to outlaw the use of mobile phones entirely while driving, whether hands free or not,. Until that happens there should also be far heavier penalties nationally for the illegal use of hand held mobiles and rigorous application of the ‘dangerous driving’ offence when they clearly play a contributing part in a collision.

In addition to legal penalties there should also be social penalties. Anyone who uses their phone whilst driving should be made aware that it is unacceptable, in the same way that drink driving is reviled and the use of seatbelts, for the vast majority of drivers, is second nature.

Sadly mobile phone use on the move is a relatively new phenomenon in terms of human behavioural development and change won’t happen overnight, but the fleet industry can play an important role in getting this message across and helping this essential attitude shift to occur.

References: *Transport Research Laboratory, 2008, Dangers of Texting Whilst Driving

Driving Risk Management Ltd


Adolescent Drivers and their attitude to risk-taking

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Insurance data harvested over many years demonstrates that the under 24s are at a much higher risk of becoming involved in road collisions than any other age group. There seems to be a general assumption that young drivers fall into this category because they are inexperienced and impetuous.  To some extent that is true but the greatest influence is the significant change that occurs in our brains during adolescenForging fabulous friendshipst years.

Just fifteen years ago it was assumed that most of the major changes in our brain happened in the very early years.  But then along came Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and neuroscientists suddenly had the ability to look inside actual living brains.

The main area of the brain that concerns us here is the prefrontal cortex.  The prefrontal cortex in human brains is proportionately much larger than in any other species.  It is involved in a lot of our higher functions, such as planning, decision making, inhibiting inappropriate behaviour and so on.  That latter point is an interesting one; it stops us saying things that can offend and doing things that are stupid.  So it is very important in modern society; it helps us understand other people and contributes to our sense of self awareness.

It is an area of the brain that goes through a lot of changes in our adolescent years.  During that period, the connections in our brain are fine tuned and the connections that appear to serve us well are strengthened, whilst those that don’t are pruned away.  From a driving perspective, the most important change comes between the age of fourteen and early adulthood, i.e. approximately twenty years of age.

As children and adolescents we have less ability to see things from other people’s perspective.  That is in the literal sense of ‘If I can see them they can see me’, which as adult we know isn’t always true.  As adults we are more familiar with the rules of the road and are more easily able to anticipate other people’s actions.  That may appear to be another way of saying adults have more experience but the fact is the grey matter in the prefrontal cortex changes a lot in adolescents and exaggerates their lack of experience.

The biggest change though is in taking risks.  Adolescents are particularly prone to taking risks when they are with their friends.  There is a significant drive to become independent from parents and to impress friends during that period.  There are physical rewards for adolescents, in that the limbic system within the brain becomes active when risks are taken and are successful.  There is literally a reward system for risks.  It is true for adults too, which is why we have extreme sports like bungee jumping but in adolescents the limbic system is hypersensitive and rewards risk taking disproportionately.

So what we have in adolescents is a prefrontal cortex that is not sufficiently developed to stop us from doing things that are inappropriate, combined with a hypersensitive limbic system that rewards risk taking and an inability to see things from other people’s perspective.  Perhaps we can now begin to understand why there are so many incidents involving young people on the roads! Hardly surprising then that the average fleet manager thinks twice about giving a driving-related job to an under 24 year old.

That may appear to be a bleak picture for adolescent road safety but there is a very positive note to strike here.  Our environment helps to shape the adolescent brain so if we are taught road safety in an engaging way from an early age that will help to shape our attitudes later on.  The very malleability of the brain in adolescent years is sometimes seen as a problem but it can also be the solution.  If good driving tuition is provided in our pre-adolescent and early adolescent years it can almost literally shape our thoughts for the future.

Young men go through adolescence a couple of years later than young women, which is probably why the term ‘boy racers’ springs so easily to mind and they tend to hit that point in their lives just as they are starting to drive.  The key is to give them the right guidance in a manner which is acceptable to them in these crucial years, a time when self image is everything. Making road safety ‘cool’ is a tall order perhaps but it may be the only way to change the dangerous driving habits of a generation.



Driving Risk Management Ltd (more…)

Do you know where you’re going? The psychology of satellite navigation system use.

Friday, December 10th, 2010

Over the past ten years or so there has been a massive increase in the amount of technology that we can use when driving. While this technology can either entertain us or aid our driving, it can also distract us. In fact, some research has suggested that distractions may account for up to 78% of crashes[1]. Much of the research and media attention has been focused on the use of mobile phones when driving; however the use of satellite navigation systems has become commonplace, with over 14 million in use in 2008.  Relatively little is known about the advantages and disadvantages of using these systems.


iStock_000002494679Large The main problem with using mobile phones when driving is that your attention is divided between two tasks: talking and driving. You cannot give either your full attention, therefore your driving skills decrease. There seems to be a similar effect when using sat navs. Cases of drivers ending up on the edge of a cliff, on railway lines or on roads too narrow for a car to pass through have been well publicised in the media. If they were paying attention how could this have happened? What has research shown us about how we use satellite navigation systems?

Intuitively, it might seem that the use of a navigation system would be less distracting than using a mobile phone. However, research has shown that drivers are more likely to be distracted by a task that is relevant to their driving, such as map reading, than to something that is irrelevant[2]. It’s therefore possible that the use of sat navs might distract a driver or interfere with their ability to drive safely.

While there may be some negative effects from using sat navs, they are used for a good reason – to navigate our way to a destination. Drivers have needed to achieve this since long before sat navs came into use! Maybe a more relevant question is whether sat navs are safer, or less distracting, than the traditional paper map?

One study compared driving performance when using either a sat nav system or a paper map[3]. They found that drivers using a sat nav system reached their destination faster and took a shorter route to their destination. However, the sat nav users also drove significantly faster and drove more aggressively around corners. So it seems that the use of sat navs in fleet cars would bring some advantages in terms of efficiency, but may bring some increased risks at the same time.

It’s unlikely that the use of sat navs will decrease and they have many obvious benefits for drivers, so how can we minimise the negative effects of using sat navs? There seems to be two approaches to this issue.

First, much research is being conducted to improve the sat nav systems in order to reduce the cognitive load that is placed on the driver, so that they can focus their attention more on driving. One line of research is comparing the usual head down display with a head up display for the use of sat nav systems when driving. One study asked commercial lorry drivers to drive in a simulator using either a head down or head up display[4]. They found that drivers using a head up display responded faster to emergency situations and maintained more consistent driving speeds.

Current sat nav systems provide the driver with information about when to complete a manoeuvre on the basis of distance. One research group[5] is examining how verbally identified landmarks, for example “turn right after the pedestrian crossing”, might be used to improve the information that drivers are given by navigation systems. Half of the participants received direction on the basis of distance and half on the basis of landmarks. They found that the participants being given landmark instructions were more confident in their driving, spent less time looking at the sat nav display and made fewer driving and navigation errors.

The second approach is to help drivers to better understand the risks involved when using a sat nav and to develop driving techniques to avoid the possible dangers that are encountered. For example, being more selective about when to look at the device, not making sudden changes of direction and trusting your own common sense, can help you to drive safely whilst still having the advantages of a navigation system.

[1] Neale et al. (2005)

[2] Cnossen et al. (2004)

[3] Lee and Cheng (2008)

[4] Liu and Wen (2004)

[5] May et al. (2005)

Dr Victoria Bourne  (BA Hons, DPhil)

Consultant to Driving Risk Management Limited