Managing the risk of driving

Driving standards in this country are crap. Whether you drive, cycle or walk, this is apparent. People in cars who frankly couldn’t care less about the need to control their vehicle.

Driver on a mobile in Kingston
A driver paying attention in Kingston

Of course, we can rely upon our fellow community members to convict, on those occasions that the police deign to prosecute, can’t we? Well no, we can’t. A driver can apparently driver 1.2 miles at the 50mph speed limit in under a minute, kill somebody shortly after sending a stack of texts, and the jury see nothing worth convicting.

Risk Management

Driving is inherently about risk management. A test is required to ensure a minimum standard of competence. Insurance is required to manage the risk of financial liability in the event of an incident. And decisions that drivers make are all about managing risk, whether consciously or not. What’s more, when so many people drive, if poor standards are commonly accepted then there is a risk that justice will not be effectively served.

Yet we still often see poor driving and routine law-breaking. Does the present system manage or avoid risk?

Learning to Drive

Driving is a curious thing. Think back to when you started learning. How hard was it to simply change gear, let alone watch out for other traffic, indicate and concentrate on finding your route in an unfamiliar city.

The Four Stages of Competence map the path from Unconscious Incompetence (such as my then two year old insisting he was going to drive home, yet being extremely annoyed that the car didn’t move) to Conscious Incompetence – that moment you’re handed the keys and the reality hits that you don’t know what to do. Conscious Competence follows this. You can drive but have to think about it, particularly if an unfamiliar situation occurs. Finally comes Unconscious Competence. Most of us reach this level in at least some areas – we can change gear without thinking about it for example. But we are unlikely to master every part of driving, if the situation is unfamiliar. How many of us could deal with suddenly hitting a large patch of black ice?

So not only are we not often not competent with unfamiliar situations, we will also have acquired most of our skill unsupervised after we’ve passed our test. Kolb provides an experiential learning framework which shows how we learn:
Kolb.001

The modelling and observation happens privately. We reinforce this, largely through our social circle. So our driving standard is peer reinforced, based our internal values. There is little control over this to ensure an adequate standard of driving, beyond the vague and distant threat of penalty points.

Managing the Risk

So we need to ensure that adequate standards of driving are maintained. We cannot assume that people will manage this themselves; being human we are terrible at estimating risk and consequently people tend to over-estimate their driving ability.

So what is the solution to an inadequately reinforced peer-learned model?
One is to run continuous driver training courses for all, whereby the modelling and observation take place in groups under trained supervision and coaching. Unfortunately this is not scalable to several million drivers.
The other solution is to require regular testing. This gives the opportunity to ensure that the driver is aware of new laws and has an incentive to focus on improving their driving at distinct points. It also provides a convenient mean of removing those drivers who don’t meet the required standard from the road.

I have no doubt that any calls to retest drivers will result in calls to test cyclists (Hello, Tory and UKIP councillors!), despite the fact that drivers and cyclists are frequently the same people in different situations. So let’s examine the case for testing different modes of transport.

Walking Tests

Let’s start with the most basic form of transport! After all, people walking often find themselves legislated against. Crossing roads in many countries is illegal, except at given crossing points. Even then, pedestrians may find they have to wave flags in case they have accidentally rendered themselves invisible.

Flags to cross the road. Source: Brett VA/Flickr creative commons
Flags to cross the road. Source: Brett VA/Flickr creative commons

What is the risk that a pedestrian poses to others? Well, if they step out into a road carelessly, they can certainly cause damage to others. But that damage tends to be due to the other party’s speed and the pedestrian has significant moral hazard that causes them to look out.

Given that pedestrians have been walking and gathering in towns for 7000 years with few ill effects, it seems reasonable to not require a test or unreasonable legal restrictions for walking.

Cycling Tests

Now for cycling. This is a human powered transport with plenty of rough points on which to damage people. It’s a seemingly unstable beast yet one that is accessible to anyone from three year old children to those in their twilight years.

Get a licence, you lycra lout!
Get a licence, you lycra lout!

So what’s the risk posed by cyclists?
Very little, it turns out. Deaths caused by cyclists make headline news because they are so very rare. Velocity rarely exceeds 20mph and the mass of rider plus bike will rarely exceed 100kg. There is also significant moral hazard for the rider; hitting someone or avoiding a crash carries significant risk of losing a layer of skin at best.
So from a risk management point of view, there’s little need to require that cycling requires a licence. And if there’s no risk, why on earth would we wish to go through the administrative burden of licencing a rider who cannot even write their name?

Driving Tests

And so to motor vehicles. We know that the risk from these vehicles is high, in terms of sheer kinetic energy being propelled. Thousands of deaths and injuries every year is testament to that. The quality of driving on our roads is shockingly low too – beyond one’s own experience, simply look at the Twitter feeds of traffic police for examples.

It’s clear that the current licencing is insufficient. Banning drivers who reach 12 points is reliant on the stretched resources of the police to catch offenders, and for judges to not believe the pleas of exceptional hardship from those who hadn’t twigged that it might be prudent to drive carefully upon reaching 9 points.

A retest is a proposed solution. Every five years should be sufficient, but feedback from traffic police and accident data should be used to to verify that standards are actually rising.

That would cover the standard risk of driving. But what of those who voluntarily take on more risk by driving heavier vehicles which carry much greater kinetic energy? A fair solution would be that vehicles over a certain mass require an additional qualification to be driven. This could simple be the IAM Advanced Driving test. The goal of this is not to curtail driving these vehicles, but to ensure that ability is in line with the increased risk posed.

Similarly, those who drive for hire might be assessed more frequently. This would give passengers assurance of their driver’s capability.

In Summary

This may sound like a rant from a car-hater. It’s not. I’m still working on persuading my wife that a Porsche 928 is in reality a four seat hatchback.
However, it is a recognition that something has to change. I’m fed up with crap driving, whether I’m in my car, on my bike or trying to cross a street safely with my children.
The present system does not manage risk. It avoids it, hiding risk away and brushing the inevitable outcomes under the carpet.

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Author: Stuff Rich Writes

Cyclist and Product Manager. I blog about both.

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