Teaching people to be better drivers is not improving traffic safety, but better technology may do the trick, say researcher Rick Clapton – photo by Bud Mortenson
UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 11 | Nov. 2, 2006
For safer roads we must turn to technology, says researcher
By Bud Mortenson
Rick Clapton once believed driver training helped improve safety for motorists, but those views have taken a sharp U-turn.
Now teaching history at UBC Okanagan, the former long-haul truck driver and licensed driving instructor recently examined the changing traffic death reduction policies of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States over the past two centuries. His conclusion: traffic death reductions in these countries are a result of safer roadways and cars — not improved driving practices.
“I now think all the resources put into driver education have failed,” he says. “It’s not working. Actually, a number of studies show that drivers with driver education have higher crash records than those drivers who don’t have driver training.”
Clapton completed a PhD at the University of Melbourne, Australia, examining traffic safety policies in that city. Today, he is one of perhaps 10 researchers in the world studying the relatively new field of traffic safety policy, policing and law — with expertise in what he frankly describes as “the inability of traffic policy to change driver behaviour.”
“During the 20th century, traffic crashes have maimed, injured and killed more people than soldiers killed in battle — in every motorized country in the world,” Clapton says.
Although traffic death rates have fallen since the late 1960s, crash and injury rates have remained constant in the countries he studied. Clapton says it’s an indication that, despite greater emphasis on training, driving behaviour hasn’t changed much in recent decades.
“The reduction in traffic deaths has been a direct result of improved roads, vehicles, safety restraints and medical practices, rather than encouraging safer driving practices,” he says.
Technological innovations under development or as-yet only imagined, such as automated control systems for cars, could eliminate some of the complexities that challenge drivers: judging distances, navigating the roadway, tracking other vehicles, and much more.
Something as simple as disabling cell phones in cars could do wonders for driving safety, he suggests.
“I think the answers lie in technology,” he says, pointing to railways — tried and true transportation with a long and relatively good safety record — for inspiration. “On a railway, you are limited by the track you’re on. You only have to worry about controlling speed and time.”
He cautions that even technical advancements aren’t always solutions. Take, for example, back-up alarms that sound when a vehicle is in danger of striking an object behind it. Clapton says drivers can become reliant on this kind of device, over time losing their ability to function safely without them.
“We can’t always predict how technology will affect driver behaviour,” he says. “A significant majority of people derive a sense of power from driving, and people with air bags and other safety devices almost always drive more aggressively because they feel safer.”
Call it human nature. People don’t want to believe how dangerous driving can be, Clapton says.
“Most people — most of the time — will be safe,” he says. “We drive around thinking we’re going to be OK. If you brought all the traffic accidents together in one place at one time, you’d have a national catastrophe. But we don’t see the impact — they’re commonplace and have become part of what anthropologists call our ‘cultural mosaic’.”
A phenomenon called “optimism bias” places blinders on drivers, too. “It’s the ‘this won’t happen to me’ phenomenon,” he says. “Trained drivers have confidence that they’re safe, when they are actually just as vulnerable as any other motorist.”
Influences such as pop-culture have produced in drivers’ minds an unrealistic perception of safety. “We identify with heroes — we see them on television doing dangerous and daring things in their cars and they never get injured,” Clapton says.
While Clapton readily agrees that wholesale changes in traffic and vehicle control are a long way off, he remains adamant that something must change.
“We’re not going to wake up one day to find all cars controlled automatically. But ideally we’d start moving toward some technology,” he says. “I’m truly convinced that driver education isn’t going to reduce the road death and injury toll in any significant way.”