Instead of starting with a question this week, I’ll start with an answer: Ninety-three percent. Here’s the question: How many American drivers believe they are above average? When drivers were asked to rate their driving ability compared to an average driver ninety-three percent of us thought we were better. You don’t need a statistics class to realize that since only half of any group can be above average, many of us misperceive our driving ability.
Why do we think we’re so great at driving? With over 40,000 traffic fatalities last year, the data doesn’t support it. The psychologists would call it the Superiority Illusion. Some people call it the Lake Wobegone Illusion, after the fictional town where all the children are above average. Whatever the name, it’s dangerous to overestimate driving skill. When we believe we’re better at driving than we really are, we’re more likely to take risks that we can’t recover from.
Personally, I wanted to be able to honestly answer that I really am a better-than-average driver. This week I spent three days with Advanced Drivers of America learning how to drive. Yes, I was already a licensed driver with over thirty years of experience. And yes, I still learned how to be a better driver. We learned new terms like limit point, safety line, eye control, and the catchy abbreviation MSPSL. But it’s the new habits those terms encourage that make for safer driving.
My apologies to my driving instructor for oversimplifying a three day course, but I’d describe the step from law-abiding driver to excellent driver as moving from what I’ll call passive driving to active driving. Allow me to explain. Much of our traditional driving instruction, our laws, and even our discussions in this column revolve around what you shouldn’t do: don’t drink and drive, don’t speed, don’t drive distracted. With good reason; if you don’t do those things you’ll obviously decrease your risk of a crash.
But not breaking the law is only the first step to safe driving. Have you ever driven somewhere and not been able remember a section of the drive? You weren’t impaired, you weren’t speeding and you weren’t on your phone, but you couldn’t describe anything you passed for the last mile. Or maybe you remember the drive, but you haven’t noticed hazards on your route because you’re only looking at the car right in front of you. Anyone who has driven for a while can probably relate. That’s passive driving.
Instead, an active driver continually assesses the driving situation, looking ahead, identifying potential or actual hazards and making adjustments to avoid them. One of my classmates, a motorcycle rider, said that every time he goes for a ride he considers it practice; an opportunity to improve skills. When is the last time you thought of your commute to work as the perfect chance to become a better driver? There’s actually a term for that: it’s called “roadcraft.”
Just in case you think practicing means intentionally losing control of your car and recovering from a skid, that’s not what I’m talking about. A truly good driver isn’t relying on the ability to recover from a bad situation, but on seeing far enough ahead to avoid the hazard entirely. In fact, drivers who are taught hazard recovery skills tend to crash more frequently, because they over-estimate, and over-drive, their abilities.
For those of you who are wondering, yes, I passed the class. No, I didn’t get a perfect score. Driving is a skill that has room for continuous improvement. Am I now above average? Instead of comparing myself to other drivers, I will say that I’m a better driver than I was four days ago.
In our driving culture, taking a driving class after getting a driver license seems like an alien concept. Isn’t the whole purpose of driver training just to get a license? I’d argue that since driving is the most dangerous activity in our daily lives, driver training should be a survival tool, not just a step to a license. Whether that means enrolling in a course or making some other plan to become more educated about driving, I’m an advocate for making a commitment to become an active, and safer, driver.