You can be in jeopardy at any time of year, but when Old Man Winter turns roads to ice, the consequences of poor attitudes, poor decisions and poor driving behaviors can turn chronic risk to acute risk. Simply because you have never crashed, you can’t assume you won’t crash today. Indeed, the likelihood of an accident goes up the longer you are on the road. Experience might work for you, but it will sure-as-shootin’ work against you.
This may be due in part to a psychological phenomenon called “compensatory risk behavior.” According to Dr. Nicholas Ward, associate director of ITS Institute Human Factors Research, Minneapolis, “People are more cautious when they perceive too much risk but they are less cautious when there is too little.” Thus the severity of crashes is reduced in winter since the perceived risk is greater. On the other hand, when risk is perceived to be lower, people become less cautious. Ward explains this risk cycle as “returning to a comfortable level of risk.” As a driver’s experience increases, he perceives certain situations as less risky. Experience has taught him nothing will happen even though an analysis might find many risk factors. In other words, experience has clouded perception; there are unperceived risks.
Leaning on skill
While it is commonly believed that experienced drivers are better drivers, being a better driver does not necessarily mean having fewer accidents. Statistics show that young male drivers with the best visual perception, fastest reaction time and most knowledge have higher crash rates. Dr. Leonard Evans, president of Science Serving Society and an influential safety expert, says, “We collectively take higher risks when we set our own level of difficulty.” Thus, good eyesight, fast reaction times and a high level of knowledge have no effect for a driver who believes himself invulnerable and finds himself on an icy road that provides little traction. What makes a difference in winter driving is the avoidance of risk. A driver with excellent skills renders those skills useless by making poor judgments and putting himself and others in needless jeopardy.
Experts say drivers who think they are invincible are a danger to themselves and others.
But why do drivers make poor judgments? Why do professionals whose lives and livelihoods depend on safe behavior willfully try to beat the odds by running in snow and ice, or by driving too fast for developing, unavoidable conditions? Is it the knowledge that fewer accidents happen in February than in June? Unlikely. There are indeed fewer accidents in winter than summer, but even if drivers know this statistic it probably does not influence their behavior.
Is it the macho cowboy attitude so rampant in our industry? If, as Dr. Leon James, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii, suggests, “A person’s driving style is about his personality from the word go,” your attitudes and beliefs play a large part in the decisions you make. Is it the fact that a driver’s experience, while vast, has not taught him how to evaluate risk? Worse, has his experience taught him to ignore risk?
If, as Evans suggests, “Driving habits are largely determined by personal experience,” your vast experience might well be doing you as much harm as good. Things like your personal need for a paycheck, your unwillingness to sit when everybody else has decided to run just to see if that black ice is still out there, your view of yourself as a guy who doesn’t let the road conditions slow him up – these pieces of your personality can certainly influence your decision to go and find some ice or run 45 on crusted snowpack in a freezing rain, no matter how many four-wheelers you have to pass. You bring yourself to the job and it shows first of all in decision-making.
And no matter what anybody says, many in the industry expect you to take some chances. At any rate there are always more reasons to move than to sit, and the weather is not supposed to be a factor. The longer you sit waiting out 20 miles of slick slab, the harder it will be to make up the time. And you will expect to make up the time. So you move on out when the only safe thing to do is sit. You overcome the slight gnaw in your stomach and replace it with adrenalin. You let all the good reasons in the world win out over the best idea – the idea of safety. You let your needs and desires, your personality, make what should have been a logical choice. You have given in to jumping off the bridge with the rest of your friends.
It might well be you have had no experience or training in what Dr. Ray Fuller, a psychologist at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, calls “a low-probability hazardous scenario,” meaning that even though you have jumped off the bridge, you haven’t slid into the ditch a whole lot. Even if you have been in the ditch, you probably forgot the pain and suffering after a few weeks so that the memory no longer keeps you from risking it again.
And if you have had training on a skid pad and understand what it feels like to be in an 18-wheel skid, ask yourself one more question: Do you have enough training to automatically do the right thing when your wagon starts to come around? Even more to the point, how will all the training in the world keep your wagon on the road when there is just no traction? As skid pad instructors emphasize, “You’re not supposed to skid.”
Don’t allow your adrenalin to cause you to ‘jump off the bridge with the rest of your friends’ when you are running late. Make logical decisions.
Choose to be safe
The decisions you make don’t have to be knee-jerk reactions to your emotions. You can short-circuit certain unsafe behaviors merely by understanding that you can change your mind. You can therefore modify your behavior. You can sit until the road is clear. You can make the industry live up to its claims that safety comes first. You can call the bluff of your boss who says, “Whether you go or stay is up to you.” Fuller put it this way: “For each condition experienced, the driver needs to know what behavioral option will lead to a safe outcome and what will lead to an unsafe one.” He cannot fool himself into thinking that running on ice in heavy traffic is safe. A professional driver perceives risk and avoids it.
The key to safe winter driving is the personal control you have over the decisions you make. It is not about your physical skills or your courage. It is about self-control and independent thinking.
Advanced winter driving is about risk avoidance rather than risk management. It is the simple idea that more guys ought to stop sooner than they do in bad conditions, and they ought to wait longer to get back on. Only when risk is truly unavoidable is risk management brought into play, times when you know you should hang iron and times when getting the correct information might make risk avoidance the best option. Perhaps tire chains are an extreme example of risk management, but using them when necessary, as when you are caught between stops and the roads deteriorate quickly, is a safety behavior comparable to the decision to stay put in that it is arguably the safest behavior given the circumstances. Having accurate information about road conditions can give a driver the edge in knowing what those circumstances are. An Internet connection, if available, can provide up-to-the-minute weather info for any part of the country.
To choose the safest behavior in any circumstance is really the only sensible way to do the job. It does not hurt to remember Evans’ credo: “The superior driver uses superior judgment to avoid using his superior skills.”