Hergott: Inattentive driving becomes the norm

Years of driving without that horrible, perfect coincidence of vehicle placement and movement can lead us to driving on autopilot.

I back out of my driveway every morning at about 5:15 a.m. Traffic on that quiet street at that time of the morning is rare.

This morning, just as my back bumper is meeting the curb, a little red car comes screaming around the slight bend in the street from my right side, the red car almost hugging the curb.

The driver is not expecting anyone to be backing out of their driveway so early in the morning on that quiet street.

With neither of us expecting to encounter the other, it is a horrible coincidence of vehicle placement and movement: ‘The wrong place at the wrong time.’  What are the odds?

When we first learn to drive, a parent or a professional driving instructor teach us to expect the unexpected. Each of us is an anxious hawk, watching out for anything ahead of us to go wrong.

We drive defensively, eliminating the risk of such a horrible coincidence occurring. We drive at a safe speed down residential streets, watching intently for any sign of a vehicle backing out or a child chasing a ball, even though it’s the early morning.

The more we drive without encountering extremely low probability events like a vehicle backing out of their driveway at the exact, coincidental moment that would result in a crash, the less anxious we become. More and more, our minds go to other things like our upcoming day at work. The lower and lower our anxiety, the lower and lower our attentiveness. Our increasingly inattentive driving is reinforced every time we get behind the wheel and there is no crash.

From time to time we are snapped to attention by a ‘close call.’  The coincidence of vehicle placement and movement isn’t quite lined up perfectly like it was for me this morning and we are able to avoid a crash by hard braking swerving.

Instead of returning us to being attentive, ‘an anxious hawk,’ though, these close calls do the opposite. Perhaps we have a brief period of hawkish anxiety but we have learned that we are able to brake hard or swerve and avoid a crash, even though we were day dreaming. We are lulled into a deeper sense of complacency.

Years of driving without encountering that horrible, perfect coincidence of vehicle placement and movement that cannot be saved by hard breaking or swerving lead us to that autopilot mode of driving where we get to our destination and can’t really remember the drive.

I am very lucky, as is the driver of the red car. Like most others, I got to that same place of autopilot driving over decades of driving. My saving grace has been my exposure, over the 20 years of my legal practice, to the circumstances and aftermaths of an unending series of crashes. I have seen, in vivid Technicolor, that all of those crashes occurred because of inattentiveness that we accept as part of our driving culture because it is totally workable most of the time.

The growing realization that inattentiveness is the most prolific cause of crashes has caused me to be a much, much more attentive driver who once again expects the unexpected. My attentiveness allowed me to easily stop this morning, allowing the red car to scream past the back of my bumper.

I am certainly not unique. Many others drive with the requisite level of attentiveness that would eliminate the vast majority of car crashes. How do we change our driving culture to instill that level of attentiveness into all of us?

Attentive driving takes work, and doing the ‘10 and 2’  is a tool I have come up with to help with that important job, something I advocate on my driver safety web site which you can find at OneCrashisTooMany.com.

If you have other ideas, please let me know.


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