The benefits of behaviour based driver safety (Part 1)

Driver education must incorporate the concepts of behaviours, motivations, attitude

The benefits of behaviour based driver safety (Part 1)
Spencer McDonald

Research indicates that driver training incorporating only basic vehicle control skills and law has little long-term effect on driver performance. It may only serve to help motivated individuals to qualify for licensure or increase the probability of incident due to overconfidence. Once a driver has qualified in basic skills and knowledge, further refresher training in this content area (as demonstrated in many “driver improvement” courses) yields minimal positive effect.

Behaviour based driver improvement efforts incorporating driver attitudes, risk perception and emotional intelligence amongst other basic psychological constructs are now gaining traction across Canada.

According to the International Road Federation, the most important criterion for safe driving is a perfect balance between risks and capabilities, regardless of what those capabilities are. They go on to say that it’s only when “both the perceived capabilities completely coincide with the real capabilities, and the perceived risks completely coincide with the real risks” that a driver is said to be “well calibrated” — the goal of every modern driver training program.

Perception of her own capabilities and perception of risks in the driving environment are wholly dependent on the driver’s psychology. Attaching meaning to raw perception is an intellectual process and is also heavily influenced by the emotions of the moment.  

Historically defensive driving courses offered throughout North America beginning in the mid 1960s laid a solid foundation by refreshing driver knowledge, but these courses have not evolved in educational methodology and understanding of human behavioural psychology. Simply put, these courses typically are still based on the premise that if a driver knows the rules and understands the principles of safe driving, the driver will apply these across every driving challenge and, ultimately, prevent most collisions. This thinking is naive to say the least. 

Ohio City, Ohio (now Cleveland) recorded the first injury involving a gasoline-powered auto in 1891 when James Lambert lost control and crashed. The first recorded collision between two vehicles was shortly after in France in 1893 and the first recorded driver fatality was Englishman Henry Lindfield in 1898.  

In the ensuing 120 years, countless thousands have died in motor vehicle crashes. Many efforts have been made to reduce this carnage through the trinity of road safety, which has always been engineering, enforcement and education. Much progress has been achieved in vehicle engineering and safety, beginning with such rudimentary devices as seat belts, which were first mandated in Canada in Ontario in 1976, and include later advancements such as airbags, winter tires and vehicle monitoring systems. Engineering has also improved road design standards, which has been ongoing throughout the decades.

Enforcement provides the “big stick” part of motivation. It has provided its fair share of prevention and has continued to adopt new and improved technologies to help dissuade unlawful behaviours. Technologies such as radar speed guns, red light cameras, photo speed enforcement and drones have all expanded enforcements capabilities to carry out their duties. 

Education has also made a contribution, yet it is largely unchanged in Canada since it was first widely developed.

It is generally accepted that at least 80 per cent of all crashes are preventable by driver action. That is to say, the incident occurred as a result of driver action or inaction. Driver behaviour is the key that unlocks the next leap forward in road safety before we are all chauffeured in autonomous vehicles.  

Human behaviour is based on psychology. We do what we do in life and on the road, for very personal reasons. These reasons make sense to us and are generally (although not universally) aligned with our beliefs and values; in essence, our attitudes.  New advancements in driver education and training that include driver behaviour have been developed and are gaining popularity across North America.  These behaviour based driving courses reach beyond discussions of rules, regulations and knowledge and address the critical issues of attitude, risk tolerance, decision-making, anger, impulsiveness, competition, and emotional intelligence.

For driver education to truly effect a reduction in incident frequency and encourage more responsible driver actions, ongoing training and refresher training programs must incorporate the concepts of behaviours, motivations and attitude. Training must assist in the development of higher order skills including risk perception, advanced visual search and observational skills, as well as attitudinal components that encourage risk reduction and an understanding of the external and internal influences on a driver’s risk tolerance.

Reminding a driver to stop at a stop sign is at worst insulting and at best patronizing but engaging a driver in a conversation about the factors which may influence the driver’s decision to not stop may lead to personal insight and lasting change.


Special thanks to Ryan Jacobson, CEO, Saskatchewan Safety Council, for his assistance with this article.