Unsafe at Any Speed

The case against human drivers

Christopher DeLorenzo

Under Ohio law, a driver can accrue 12 points’ worth of violations within two years before his license is automatically suspended. That is, he could be caught going 30 miles over the limit three times (four points each) or cause multiple accidents resulting in misdemeanor reckless-driving charges (two to four points each) before losing the right to drive. Should he commit vehicular manslaughter (six points), his license would be suspended, but he could get it back in as little as six months. Other states have similarly forgiving laws. Considering that 94 percent of crashes involve some form of driver error or impairment immediately before impact, [1] you have to wonder: Are we too tolerant of bad driving—or is the problem more basic? Are we, as humans, simply not suited to the task?

According to one analysis, 4 million of the nearly 11 million crashes that occur annually could potentially be avoided if distractions were eliminated. [2] But instead, we actively seek out distractions, like texting. A meta-analysis of 28 studies confirms that typing or reading on our phones while driving adversely affects stimulus detection, reaction time, lane positioning, vehicle control, and, yes, collision rate. [3] Some researchers have concluded that texting while driving may pose more of an accident risk than driving either under the influence of marijuana or at the legal alcohol limit. [4] And, contrary to stereotype, teenagers aren’t the primary offenders: A survey of more than 2,000 adults suggests that they are just as likely as teens to have texted behind the wheel, and substantially more likely to have talked on their cellphone. [5]

Which isn’t to say we’re all equally bad in the driver’s seat. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who report becoming angry while driving are more likely than others to behave recklessly on the road. [6] So are people who drive fancy cars. In one pair of studies, researchers observed that drivers of expensive cars (think shiny new BMWs) were less likely than those with older, less expensive, or beat-up vehicles to yield to other drivers and pedestrians. [7] And according to a four-year study, adults who played risk-glorifying video games like Grand Theft Auto as adolescents were more likely to have risky driving habits—and to get into accidents—later on. [8]

Compounding the problem, few of us accept that we are bad drivers. Many people overestimate their driving capabilities thanks to a cognitive bias known as the illusion of control, which is predictive of dangerous driving behavior. [9] We may be especially prone to overconfidence when we think no one is watching. One study found that we’re more likely to engage in aggressive behavior such as cutting across a lane when we don’t have a passenger. [10]

Driverless cars are looking better and better: They won’t text with each other, or get angry. They won’t play Grand Theft Auto in their off-hours. And they won’t cut you off just for the hell of it. Even if they’re BMWs.

The Studies:

[1] Singh, “Critical Reasons for Crashes Investigated in the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey” (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Feb. 2015)

[2] Dingus et al., “Driver Crash Risk Factors and Prevalence Evaluation Using Naturalistic Driving Data” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 2016)

[3] Caird et al., “A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Texting on Driving” (Accident Analysis and Prevention, Oct. 2014)

[4] Reed and Robbins, “The Effect of Text Messaging on Driver Behaviour” (Transport Research Laboratory, Sept. 2008)

[5] Madden and Rainie, “Adults and Cell Phone Distractions” (Pew Research Center, June 2010)

[6] Dahlen and White, “The Big Five Factors, Sensation Seeking, and Driving Anger in the Prediction of Unsafe Driving” (Personality and Individual Differences, Oct. 2006)

[7] Piff et al., “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behavior” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 2012)

[8] Hull et al., “A Longitudinal Study of Risk-Glorifying Video Games and Reckless Driving” (Psychology of Popular Media Culture, Oct. 2012)

[9] Stephens and Ohtsuka, “Cognitive Biases in Aggressive Drivers” (Personality and Individual Differences, May 2014)

[10] Shinar and Compton, “Aggressive Driving” (Accident Analysis and Prevention, Oct. 2014)