By Samuel Smith
Last updated on: August 6, 2020 at 11:56 am
In the first half of 2020 alone, South Australian roads claimed 50 lives. This simple statistic begs a larger question: do we think we’re safer behind the wheel than we actually are?
When you’re driving, what’s on your mind? Perhaps it’s emails lurking in your inbox at the office, or maybe you’re more concerned about what’s in the fridge for dinner back at home.
Chances are, you’re not paying enough attention to the masses of metal whizzing past at 10, 20, even 30 metres per second, or the cyclist perched precariously next to you at the traffic lights.
In fact, it’s alarmingly easy to jump in the car and arrive at your destination without much thought at all.
But inattention isn’t the only issue. Countless drivers – through alcohol and drug use, as well as excessive speed – regularly put themselves and others in extremely dangerous situations on the road, with the mindset that if they don’t get caught, they’ll be fine.
With a shocking 114 fatalities and 833 serious injuries on SA roads last year, statistics prove otherwise.
So why do we seem to think we’re invincible behind the wheel?
Perhaps the most obvious place to start looking for answers is within the car cabin.
From air con and power windows to audio-visual advancements, creature comforts have come a long way since the dawn of the automotive age, but could they be lulling us into a false sense of security on the road?
RAA Future Mobility Expert Mark Borlace thinks it could be possible.
“New technology is constantly being introduced to our cars, especially now with the integration of Google Assistant and Alexa, which read out text messages and can answer just about any question you might have,” he says.
“While new tech, like autonomous emergency braking and lane-departure warning, has played a major role in improving road safety, there are some features that can leave us distracted and perhaps a little too comfy behind the wheel.”
The result? Detached drivers who feel more protected than they really are.
Driving is one of the most complicated tasks a human can perform. It relies on rapid-fire reactions as well as perception, hearing, cognitive function, memory, insight, judgement, motor function and muscle power.
It’s incredible that such intricate processes are performed by many of us on a daily basis.
Despite being such a complex task, the act of driving is second nature to many.
Behind the wheel, we repeat the same basic driving tasks countless times. After years on the road, our actions become semiautomated – we barely realise how many critical decisions we make each second.
Practise any skill over and over, and it will eventually become a habit, requiring less conscious thought. But unlike everyday habits such as brushing your teeth or typing an email, driving should command your full attention.
“Research has shown that driver distraction is one of the biggest causes of collisions on our roads with the potential for tragic outcomes,” says RAA Senior Manager of Safety and Infrastructure Charles Mountain.
“Whenever we take our eyes off the road, our hands off the wheel, or let our minds wander from the task of driving onto other matters, we’re driving distracted.”
Our brains can’t possibly process everything happening around us at once, which is why it’s essential we use as much of our mental capacity as possible on the road.
Think you’ve got a good attention span?
We challenge you to try psychologist Daniel Simons’ selective attention test below.
When driving, our brains are so overloaded with stimuli that thoughts of our own (and others’) safety often recede to the subconscious.
In fact, according to a study by Professor Narelle Haworth, Director of the Centre of Accident Research and Road Safety in Queensland, one of the most common errors we make when driving is forgetting that other road users are actually people with their own families, friends, jobs and feelings.
Results from the study, focussing predominantly on cyclists, found nearly half of car drivers don’t see cyclists as completely human, with a link between the dehumanisation of bike riders and acts of deliberate aggression towards them on the road.
These findings don’t just apply to cyclists though. When we’re trying to get to a specific destination at a specific time, our focus can be so intense that we completely dehumanise all other road users. In these instances, other cars on the road can seem like faceless obstacles rather than carriers of lives.
Over and underestimation
Research also shows that, on the road, we believe we have more control than we actually do. This can be explained by renowned psychologist Ellen Langer’s Illusion of Control theory: people overestimate their ability to control events and feel a sense of (false) control over outcomes they don’t influence.
When we begin driving, we subconsciously learn how to predict the actions of other motorists, the elements and our own vehicles. Unfortunately, we’re often wrong, misjudging a wide range of variables.
According to Mr Mountain, one aspect of driving that motorists constantly misjudge is stopping distance, especially in wet weather.
“On a dry road, if you need to stop in an emergency when traveling at 60km/h, it’ll take about 42m to come to a halt due to reaction times and braking distance. On a wet road, this increases to about 56m – that’s more than the length of an Olympic swimming pool,” he explains.
“Clearly, motorists should leave a greater space between themselves and the vehicle in front.”
But how often do we actually see this happening?
Another classic example of overestimating control is the amount of time people think they can save by increasing their speed.
“If they’re running late, many drivers think they can make up the time by going a little faster,” Mr Mountain says.
“In reality, increasing your speed from 60km/h to 65km/h on a 30-minute trip will only shave a minuscule two minutes off your travel time.”
What else has that two minutes cost you? Well, for every 5km/h you travel over the speed limit on a 60km/h road, the risk of a casualty crash doubles.
“Drivers don’t realise what they’re risking is their lives,” Mr Mountain says.
As Eli Murn knows all too well, driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol can soften our sense of danger behind the wheel. In 2004, Eli crashed his car while driving under the influence.
Once an aspiring professional volleyballer, he now lives with an acquired brain injury that affects all areas of his life. After spending 2 years in hospital and countless months in rehab, he’s still rebuilding his memory, brain function and speech.
Thinking back to before the crash, Eli remembers his attitude towards driving.
“I started making some unfavourable choices – lots of partying, DUIs, reckless driving, speeding. I really had an attitude of ‘it won’t happen to me’ and thought bad things only happen to people who can’t drive,” he recalls.
When asked if the consequences of his actions ever entered his mind, Eli says his need to impress his peers and girlfriend at the time eclipsed all sense of danger.
Today, Eli dedicates his life to road-safety education, but when he looks back at youth similar to himself, he feels helpless.
“Looking at people who act like I did, I’ve gone from being disgusted and angry to really feeling sorry for them. I just think, ‘I hope you learn your lessons without causing chaos. I hope you get through this stage of your life with clean hands’.”
Someone who’s experienced the carnage caused by disconnected drivers is former New South Wales Police Highway Patrol Operative, Stuart Churchill. Today, he’s RAA’s Motoring Road Rules Consultant.
After attending countless fatalities, Stuart – like so many police and emergency workers – knows how at-risk we are on the road.
“When you hold someone in your arms and they take their last breath as a result of an accident, it becomes a reality. A lot of people aren’t exposed to that, but this is what we do as police and emergency service workers,” he says.
Once you’ve seen first-hand how fragile life can be, there’s no question how vulnerable we all are behind the wheel.