L7 – How to think like a defensive driver

To many motorists, safe means not having been involved in a crash for a while. To a defensive driver, safe means not being vulnerable to crashing. The difference is not merely semantic.

To reduce our vulnerability to the risks of crashing, a considered approach to the risks inherent in the driving environment is necessary. We need to perceive driving hazards and the risks that they pose accurately, and take a considered, defensive approach to negotiating them.

Truth be told, little is known about how we perceive risk and decide on the risks worth taking. However, theories abound. One interesting theory that might shed some light on when safety might prove dangerous is Risk Compensation/Homeostasis Theory. This theory suggests that we tend to take more risks when we feel a greater sense of safety or security.

Homeostasis: “The tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements…”

Definition from https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/homeostasis

A while ago, an experiment was undertaken amongst a group of taxi drivers in Munich, Germany. Some of their cars were fitted with ABS (Anti-lock Braking System), whereas some otherwise identical taxis were not. During the experiment, it was observed that drivers anticipated the effects of ABS on the controllability of their vehicles and thus their safety, and, as the homeostasis theory suggests, compensated by adapting their driving behaviour accordingly. No effect on safety was observed and the taxi company did not see a reduction in crashes. At least, not until the drivers were told that they would be made responsible for part of any damage to their vehicles!

If our tolerance of risk is like a thermostat, we need to remember that we might take more risks on driving a feature-packed vehicle in order to remain at our preferred ‘temperature’

So, if we’re to become (increasingly) defensive drivers, with healthy safety margins, how might we leverage this theory of risk compensation and homeostasis to reduce our chances of crashing? Well, for starters, we would do well to remember that current and future driver aids fitted to our vehicles – such as semi-autonomous features like Tesla’s current ‘Autopilot’ – might, without us realising it, influence us to give our driving less care and attention. If it is true that due to ‘risk homeostasis’ we might compensate for our perception of reduced risk by taking additional risks in order to maintain homeostasis, there is mileage in us thinking of this from time to time. If our tolerance of risk is like a thermostat, we need to remember that we might take more risks on driving a feature-packed vehicle in order to remain at our preferred ‘temperature’ – unless we remain mindful of our tendency to compensate.

Do you remember from lesson 1 what percentage of American drivers claim to be better than the median? 93%! We would do well to remember both our vulnerability to risk homeostasis and our human tendency for overconfidence.

As defensive drivers, we must realise and remember that we are likely not as good and safe as we think we are. However, if we remain careful and consistent in considering “What if?” on the approach to all hazards on the road, we can compensate for our shortcomings and mistakes – and those of other road users – by planning a suitable margin for safety.

Time to catch-up on paperwork? Perhaps the abundance of safety features on new vehicles lull is into a false sense of security?

It could be said that defensive drivers are thinking drivers. And thinking drivers give some thought to the dangers of driving distracted.

In the next lesson (L8), we will give some thought to the risks involved in multi-tasking whilst driving.