Driver Attitude

Attitudes alone are not the key to safe driving.

Attitudes represent our values and beliefs about situations based on past experience. A person's belief is not always reflected in their behaviour. Behaviour is sometimes inconsistent with attitudes.

Attitudes are often rationalisations of past behaviour and there is little evidence that attitudes will be a predictor of future behaviour. Many drivers have the belief that they are good drivers and are reluctant to review their behaviour. Changing driving behaviour through attitude change is unlikely.

At Murcotts we see this during every driver training course. Drivers express attitudes in line with road safety information and laws but given an opportunity to demonstrate that attitude through their skills behind the wheel and there is usually a signifcant mismatch.

The most common example of this occurs in the first practical driving exercise of our Defensive Driving Program in which drivers are required to stop their vehicles while travelling at speeds of 50 and 60km/h. While they are familiar with the TAC advertisements that depict the benefits of reducing vehicle speeds by 5km/h, the majority of drivers overestimate their ability to stop their vehicle - and by a large potentially fatal margin.

This exercise clearly connects the five BAAMS® elements. A driver's attitude may concur with the requirement to travel at 50km/h in residential streets but until they become aware that they do not posses the skill to stop when travelling faster than 50kph they may lack the motivation to change their behaviour. It is when they attempt to demonstrate their behaviour that their attitude is confronted.

Lecturing to them about correct driving attitude is not effective because most of them already know and express attitudes in line with the presented message. They just don't behave consistently with their attitudes.

Many drivers come to our courses overconfident with pre-conceived attitudes. Case in point is the anti-lock braking system (ABS) on modern vehicles. ABS was expected to significantly reduce crashes by sensing lockup and releasing the brake before applying it again rapidly thus preventing skidding while maintaining steering control. But studies have shown that ABS did not reduce crash rates because drivers with ABS have traded off the improved safety for forward mobility by adapting their behaviour in ways that reduced or eliminated the safety cushion with the result that the emergency stopping distance was no different than with standard brakes.

A test track study showed that when drivers could choose their speed, they travelled slightly faster after practicing with ABS on wet surfaces. Some form of education is needed for drivers if the benefits of vehicle safety innovations are to be realised.

During our practical in-car exercises drivers learn that their ABS vehicle does not stop in less distance than a non-ABS vehicle. Many are shocked by the pedal pulsations and lift their foot thus reducing braking effectiveness. By experiencing the situation in training their awareness and attitudes change resulting in behaviour that includes slower speeds and increased following gap.

Through this type of experiential driver training i.e. learning through practical experience, drivers are more likely to change their on-road behaviour. This will be enhanced with follow-up reinforcement provided by employers through safety sessions, family conversations, constructive media campaigns and refresher learning opportunities. But the training needs to happen first or there is nothing to reinforce.

Often safety training is based on the notion that if we can change a person's attitude then their behaviour will change. But the training may be attempting to confront attitudes that have been developed as a result of years of experience and confirmed through rewards and associations with other influential people, especially parents. To achieve a culture of road safety we need to focus on behaviour change in preference to attitude change. Why? Because objective, observable behaviour, ie the application of new knowledge, awareness and practical skills can be accomplished as a result of learning whereas changing attitudes is not easy to assess and may not ultimately affect driver behaviour on the road.

Additionally changed behaviour through repetitions in practice as part of the learning process and subsequent reinforcement, may lead to changed attitudes.