The Mental Side of Driving, Part 1

The Mental Side of Driving, Part 1

Andy Pilgrim's picture
Mar 31 2017 / By Andy Pilgrim
Facebook Twitter

I frequently use the term ‘mental side of driving” when I’m speaking about traffic safety so I was recently asked by a national magazine to write an article describing the mental side of driving as I see it. This blog is a little longer than my normal traffic safety posts here on DIH, but I thought everyone might enjoy seeing it in its entirety. I’ll be presenting it in two parts.

My traffic safety research over the last several years led me to forecast a sharp increase coming for US traffic related fatalities and injuries. I have been speaking about this for years and explaining the reasons behind my thinking. Unfortunately, I saw nothing to stop the situation from getting worse.

And things are getting worse. The National Safety Council report for 2016 shows over 40,000 fatalities and 4.5 million injuries on US roads. This was substantially worse than 2015, which at the time had seen the largest increase in 50 years. It’s pretty obvious we need some innovative thinking to help turn things around, and that’s where I focus my efforts.

Traffic Safety is my passion; my educational materials are well known to folks at NHTSA and NTSB. I have even had the honor to speak at Quantico to FBI agents about distracted driving. We are needlessly killing tens of thousands of people every year on US roads. Education is the key to change and I hope you all learn something positive and useful from reading this.

Driving takes consistent concentration and a high level of skill to do it well. Most people think of vehicle handling and positioning when driving skills are mentioned. There are some additional very important driving skills I use while driving, and they are critical in avoiding collisions and crashes. These skills are linked to the mental side of driving.

I always try to give 100 percent attention to my driving—no matter what. Let’s forget for a minute that I have many years of professional racing experience. I know many professional racers who text and talk on their smartphones constantly while driving on the street, and yes—I know some who have crashed while doing it. But being a race driver has zero bearing on being a conscientious and fully aware street driver.

I really enjoy street driving. It doesn’t matter if I’m going to the store or on a long road trip. I constantly use my mental driving skills to “see” evolving traffic situations, anticipate their outcome and be ready to take action early. The most useful mental driving skill I possess is anticipation.

On many occasions, passengers have asked me why I might be slowing down or doing a quick lane change. Reason: I saw a pending collision ahead, noticed a would-be red-light runner or possibly the vehicle behind me wasn’t slowing down for a stoplight. I have avoided literally hundreds of collisions and crashes over the years by using anticipation. Some passengers have actually suggested I must be psychic; I guess that’s possible, but not in these cases.

Sadly, very few drivers work at their anticipation skills these days, because the majority of drivers in the US are totally or partially distracted every time they drive. As a parent with a new teen driver, this is one of the most important driving skills you can teach your child.

Here is another problem associated with distracted driving, worth pointing out to your teen: Most people think they can multi-task, some even believe they are really good at it. Here’s the reality: none of us can multi-task. Nobody, not even Einstein or Tesla, could. What we believe to be multi-tasking, is in fact an example of our ability to flip back and forth from one area of thought to another, and we’re actually not very good at that either. Research says the best of us perform at about 40% efficiency on two tasks, when we attempt to “multi-task”.

Let’s think about that. If you drive around, manipulating your smartphone, texting, looking at emails, or on a phone call (hands-free or otherwise); you are driving between 0 and 40 percent (at best) of your total mental efficiency. I don’t know about you, but a so called “best” of 40 percent efficiency doesn’t fly with me. Driving while even partially distracted, means you are definitely vulnerable, probably dangerous and possibly both.

I'm going to end Part on of my post here. It's a good introduction to Distracted Driving Awareness Month, which starts tomorrow. I have a lot more to say about the nature of distraction and what's driving it. I'll be back in a couple of weeks to highlight those problems and also talk about how we, as drivers, as parents, can find a way forward through this distraction epidemic.

Until next time, stay safe.