compensating for risk when driving

Tom Vanderbilt re-posted an interesting discussion of risk compensation, the idea that people take greater risks if they think they are somehow protected. For example, they might ride bicycles more aggressively when wearing a helmet. Risk compensation can go the other direction as well. When drivers are distracted, they do, sometimes, compensate somewhat for that distraction. For example, when drivers are just following at some distance from another car and don’t have to pass, brake, or engage in any other tactical driving maneuvers, they tend to drop back a little farther when they are talking on a phone. Although the effect could just be due to general slowing when distracted, it looks like they might be compensating somewhat for their impaired response time when on a phone. Unfortunately, compensation of this safer sort has its limits too. In a study I did with Bill Horrey a few years ago, we put drivers on a divided highway with traffic in a high-end simulator and simply asked them to drive as they normally would. In some cases, drivers were distracted with a task designed to simulate the cognitive distraction of talking on a cell phone and in other cases they weren’t. When drivers happened to be following another car in the same lane for an extended time (known as steady-state following), they compensated for the distraction, maintaining greater headway. However, whenever they were performing a tactical maneuver such as passing another car, they not only failed to compensate for distraction, they actually drove more dangerously when distracted.

This study suggests that the main impact of distracted driving might be on those situations in which we have to make driving decisions. When deciding when it’s safe to pass or change lanes, distractions make us drive even riskier than we would otherwise. In other words, we don’t compensate for distraction when it actually matters.

The idea of compensation is particularly worrisome given that most regulations on the use of phones while driving ban only hand-held phones. The evidence suggests that hands-free phones are no safer than hand-held ones, but if people think hands-free phones make them safe, they might be tempted to “compensate” by making calls in even more dangerous situations.

Horrey WJ, & Simons DJ (2007). Examining cognitive interference and adaptive safety behaviours in tactical vehicle control. Ergonomics, 50 (8), 1340-50 PMID: 17558673

3 comments to compensating for risk when driving

  • Toni

    I was just reminded of comments from those who smoke weed (from my past, yeh), ‘I drive better when stoned because I’m so paranoid about getting caught, I’m super careful, way more careful when I’m stoned than when I’m sober…’, we overcompensate when we’re under the influence, but obviously are incapable of truly compensating since we’re under the influence….

    I also remember getting geared up for riding motorcycles off-road, I remember thinking that I thought I might be much more aggressive since I was wearing all the protective gear. Well, I wasn’t personally, I don’t think I was very aggressive due to the protective gear. I was, however, feeling much safer and more comfortable from wearing it… then, once I became comfortable on the motorcycle, I did eventually get more aggressive, I wonder if I’d have removed the gear how I would have ridden?

    I teach college and it’s so frustrating when I hear students say over and over “I do better when I’m doing more than one thing”, “I can’t concentrate unless the TV is on”…. etc., etc. AUGH.

    Thanks for supporting/confirming what I thought I already knew! We need this information with supporting evidence.

  • I have often said that it is not what’s in your hands, but what is on your brain that makes the distraction. I have to admit, I have spoken on my hands-free phone in the car – but if there is traffic or road work, I get off the phone – I need to concentrate. I’ve even been known to ask my teen to stop talking for a minute so I can drive – it works. I just heard, recently, someone tell a group of people that she drives better when she’s texting because it makes her pay more attention…… it’s an oxymoron.

    Thanks for the site and book! Love it!

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gerald Guild. Gerald Guild said: RT @invisgorilla: New blog post: compensating for risk when driving http://theinvisiblegorilla.com/blog/2010/07/08/compensating-for-risk … [...]

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