Sherlock on the interstate

John Latta
Executive Editor
[email protected]

Men of letters who study the way we know things have argued forever about whether intuition is a true learning process or just hindsight – or, worse still, flat-out guesswork. The “yea” crowd, lead by scholars such as Joseph Russell Royce, argues that intuition is a form of perception. After a lot of spectacularly erudite arguments, Royce says, “Someone who is said to be intuitive is, in my view, not mystical, but rather, highly acute or sensitive in perceiving complex stimulus configurations.” Sherlock Holmes, for example. Meanwhile, the “nay” group says, “Poppycock.”

But professional truckers develop an ability – maybe we can get away here with calling it a sixth sense – to identify potential trouble before there are any overt signs to anyone else on the road. It’s one thing to stay out of the way of a four-wheeler driving far over the speed limit and erratically weaving in and out of heavy traffic with no lights on at night on ice and leaving a trail of empty beer cans. But let’s say a trucker – with no reason for doing so obvious to a non-trucker onlooker – slows, changes lanes, backs off at an apparently normal ramp or decides not to pass the slower rig ahead of him. Our trucker and the drivers around him reach their destination safely, and with no fuss. There is no evidence we could put before a group of skeptics that the driver did anything unusual, and yet even the men of letters would have to admit there is a possibility that something extraordinary did happen.

I think what we have is a good driver being “highly acute or sensitive in perceiving complex stimulus configurations.” This considerable ability to “see” a developing or potential danger before it gets to the obvious stage is not usually found in the four-wheeler driver.

A University of California Irvine study found that pickup truck drivers “reported lower restraint use and more risky driving behaviors and had more traffic citations” and decided “there is a need to design appropriate occupant safety interventions for those most likely to own pickup trucks.” The same university’s pediatrics department studied drivers who carried passengers in the back of the pickups, scientifically looking for evidence that could help regulators and designers increase road safety via design or new state laws. A Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of Michigan study found that “SUVs and to a greater extent pickup trucks impose much greater risks than cars on drivers of other vehicles, and these risks increase with increasing pickup size.”

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Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for American teens. The University of Colorado School of Medicine found that, “fatal motor crashes involving novice drivers [aged 16 years] are characterized by speeding, recklessness, single-vehicle and rollover crashes, and traffic law violations, suggesting novice drivers bear considerable responsibility in fatal crashes.” Almost half weren’t wearing safety belts. The study concludes that “these data may prove useful in strengthening graduated licensing laws and in improving drivers’ education courses and public safety campaigns.”

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety studied older drivers in wrecks and found that, for all ages, while “there will be an estimated 34 percent increase in the number of drivers involved in police-reported crashes and a 39 percent increase in the number involved in fatal crashes between 1999 and 2030,” the comparative numbers for drivers 65 and older would be 178 percent and 155 percent. The study calls for “countermeasures to reduce the anticipated death toll among older drivers.”

Don’t doubt the value of university studies; they are worth their weight in gold as we try to save lives out there. And indeed progress is being made, for example with lower novice driver death rates on the road. But research like this takes time to become action, and it is not going to save lives the day it is published. Or the next day. Or the next month, maybe not even the next year. These are relatively long-term solutions to road death and injury, and we desperately need them.

But remember that you, the experienced long-haul driver, are making our roads safer right now because of your “intuition.” It’s not simply “road smarts” or “experience,” it is a highly developed skill of your profession. It is the sum of a way of learning and thinking that the best drivers develop over time, saving lives.

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