Human error is a frequent contributor to road traffic collisions, understanding the human factors provides a deep insight into road-user behaviour

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You may say you are a good driver, but are you really?

Do you think you’re a good driver? Very few people are likely to answer “no”. Generally we like to present ourselves to other people in a positive light, so we may adapt how we respond to questions to make us seem like better people. In psychological research this is called social desirability and we make this positive adjustment to our responses in a wide range of circumstances. Essentially, any time we’re asked to report our attitudes and behaviours we’re likely to be over positive.

are you really a good driverOver the past ten years a large number of online assessments have been developed to allow employers to quickly, easily and cheaply understand their employees driving behaviours and attitudes, including whether they are “risky drivers”. Whilst these assessments do provide a valuable source of information on employees’ driving behaviours, I suspect that the responses from employees might be influenced by social desirability.

Toward the end of the 1990’s a research team from the Traffic Research Unit in Finland developed a questionnaire to specifically measure social desirability in surveys of driving behaviour – the Driver Social Desirability Scale. The questionnaire included 25 items and was completed by more than four hundred participants from Finland and Australia.

From their analysis they identified two distinct aspects of driver social desirability. People scoring highly on the Driver Impression Management scale were more likely to lie about their actual driving behaviours, for example reporting that they would never exceed the speed limit or had driven through a traffic light turning red. People with high scores on the second scale, Driver Self-Deception, tended to overestimate their own driving beliefs. For example, they’re more likely to report being calm, confident and rational when driving.

While most people seek social desirability, some are more susceptible to it than others. Some people will give very honest (but possibly not very desirable) responses to driver assessments, whereas others are more likely to given socially desirable (but possibly not very honest) responses. Are there differences in driving behaviours and attitudes between these types of people?

An international team of researchers examined the relationship between social desirability, using the Driver Social Desirability Scale, and driving behaviours. They found that high scores on the social desirability scale were associated with fewer self-reported traffic collisions, but that they were not associated with the number of incidents recorded by the employing organisation. This means that people who seek social desirability, and want to be seen as good drivers, tend to report being safer drivers than the objective evidence suggests.

Online assessments of driver behaviour have many advantages. It’s easy, quick and cheap to assess the driving behaviours and attitudes of a large number of employees. It’s then possible to identify individuals who report more driving errors or violations or who are riskier drivers and then arrange further training for them. However, it’s important to bear in mind the possible effects of social desirability, which means that some people who might benefit from additional training are not identified.

Many of the recently developed self-report measures include items to test for social desirability. However, simply asking people how good they are at driving is not necessarily the most accurate way of finding out how good they really are. Having an awareness of social desirability when looking at self-report assessments will help a manager to have a better understanding of a driver’s attitudes and behaviours, which should then feed into the development of driver training and other interventions.

Dr Victoria Bourne (BA Hons, DPhil)

Counsultant to Driving Risk Management

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