Driver Beliefs and the Goals for Driver Education Matrix

It has long been known that we are drawn to behave in ways that are consistent with our beliefs. Beliefs serve as a mental framework from which we can assess, explain and integrate observations. In other words, they help us make sense of the world, and this ‘rule of thumb’ in human behaviour is no different when it comes to driving.

Believing Is Seeing

Driver beliefs are fairly consistent patterns of thinking that determine the way in which a driver interprets or makes sense of traffic related events – they provide a sense of certainty about how the roads and traffic work. Researchers in this field like to assess the way a driver thinks and feels about driving so that predictions can be made about their behaviour. Put simply, if a driver thinks that speeding is safe, they are likely to speed. To understand driver behaviour then, it is absolutely critical to get to the bottom of how drivers think.

Traffic Psychologists have discovered many different types of beliefs, but there are two extremely common, and particularly delusional, ways of  thinking that most drivers demonstrate to a greater or lesser extent. First, drivers believe they are more highly skilled than other drivers and feel justified in taking risks. Second, when asked to rate their chances of having a crash in the next 12 months, most drivers think that other people are at greater risk than they are. In reality, they can’t all be right, all of the time!

These pervasive beliefs distort perception of others and the self, and have been associated with risk taking and crash involvement. Traffic Psychologists think that these beliefs serve to rid the driver of fear or increase their sense of control over their fate, leading to misguided actions, especially amongst young inexperienced drivers. In combination with a lack of driving experience, they create a lethal cocktail. In effect, some drivers are driving around with more deadly hazards in their mind than they ever encounter on the road.

The Goals for Driver Education (GDE) Matrix

The good news is that a framework exists that considers all the knowledge and skills a driver needs and, if you didn’t know already, it’s called the Goals for Driver Education (GDE) Matrix. The GDE has been developed through decades of research in the field of driver behaviour and shows that there are major gaps in driver knowledge and skills.

The GDE shows that in order to improve road safety, drivers need to possess not only knowledge and skills relating to the actual driving task or the physical and mechanical skills of driving (Level 1) and negotiating through traffic (Level 2) but, more significantly, the skills to self evaluate personal risks associated with individual journeys (Level 3) and the personal values and goals that influence their behaviour in traffic (Level 4). They also need to understand risk increasing factors and develop skills in self-evaluation so that they can understand how their beliefs and behaviours increase their risk of being involved in a crash.

The fact that Level 1 (vehicle handling skills) and Level 2 (negotiating through traffic) are at the bottom of the hierarchy is no mistake. These lower levels Represent the knowledge and skills needed to pass a driving test in the UK. The goals and context of a particular journey (Level 3) and nthe goals for life and skills for living (Level 4) are not currently required for licensed driving, but they do consider the human factors that contribute to most crashes. The higher levels emphasise the importance of being able to recognise your ‘mind hazards’ in order to evaluate yourself and your driving abilities, which shows the importance of understanding what your limitations as a driver actually are. If learner drivers were taught these skills with full awareness of the risks they run, there would almost certainly be a major reduction of the numbers of people killed and seriously injured on the roads.

Driving Without Awareness

Psychologists know that you have to tread very carefully naround people’s thought processes if you want to awaken them to any potential dangers. Understanding our delusional beliefs is the key to changing driver behaviour. Psychologists know that the first stage in behavioural change is recognising that there is a problem to address. The key to addressing hazards in the mind is teaching self-reflection skills. Self-reflection enables a learner to understand how their own personal goals on a particular journey, and their personal characteristics, influence their risk of being involved in a crash. Thinking without awareness needs to shift to thinking WITH awareness. Safe drivers adjust their driving to the traffic and road circumstances, and their present human abilities and skills, but this requires more competencies than Q&As. A safe driver is not only skilled in vehicle control and manoeuvring, but also makes good choices by reflecting on his/her abilities prior to a journey as well as during a drive.

This article was originally published in ADI News, May 2008

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