Road safety versus The Invisible Gorilla

Road safety campaigns bore me. We shouldn’t need them at all.

‘If you drive too fast you might crash. If you drive when you’re half asleep (surprise!) you might crash.’

This level of obviousness is equivalent to reminding us not to run through the house with scissors. It should only be necessary for juveniles who don’t know any better.

But that’s the problem. Road safety messages are absolutely necessary. Responsible grownups still need to be reminded about really obvious things. ‘If you text while driving it means you are no longer watching the road as carefully as you ought to be, which means you might crash.’ It seems none of us can be trusted to common sense.

As tiresome as road safety reminders can be, I do care passionately about their message to the extent that I care passionately about not getting killed by anyone’s split-second driving error, my own included.

I tend to be a conservative driver, possibly to the annoyance of impatient speedsters out there. Why isn’t that Honda passing the truck on that blind corner? Oh, I’m sorry Mr Audi, it’s because I don’t feel like taking unnecessary risks that will destroy people’s lives today.

There are many creative ways to be accidentally wiped off the face of earth. Car crashes are the most tragic of all freak accidents because they are so utterly preventable.

Here at the tail end of Road Safety Week, let’s start paying proper attention. Put down your damn phone and watch the road.

One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read – or rather, listened to because I got it from the library as an audio book – is The Invisible Gorilla by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons.

The Invisible Gorilla investigates the surprising ways that our intuitions deceive us. Take driving with cellphones. We assume that a hands-free phone is safe, because intuition (and now legislation) tells us that having the phone in our hand while driving is dangerous.

Chabris and Simons explain how this intuition is wrong. They present empirical evidence to show that the phone call itself, hands free or not, is actually what creates the danger.

What? Huh? That doesn’t make sense does it?

The ‘everyday illusion’, as the authors call it, is that we assume a phone call is safe so long as our hands are free. But the distraction that matters has nothing to do with our hands. It’s all about our level of attention.

Evidence from a bunch of different tests and from real world examples shows that we miss a terrifying amount of visual information when engaged in a phone call and driving at the same time. Whatever we are doing with our hands is irrelevant to these results.

It’s not the same issue as talking to a passenger in the car, so you can park that objection straight away. Holding a conversation with a disembodied voice on the phone forces us into a narrow band of focus, making us more likely to miss surprises on the road.

They’ve done experiments and crunched the numbers to prove this. Naturally, you’ll assume it doesn’t apply to you because, like me, you are over-confident in your ability to notice whatever is right in front of you. Your confidence is an illusion. They’ve proven that too.

Track down The Invisible Gorilla and read it for yourself. There’s also some good info about driver distractions at www.brake.org.nz.

For now we can probably all agree that texting while driving is a whole other level of bad judgement. I once followed a kid who was texting on his motorbike. Talk about efficient ways to cull idiocy out of the gene pool. Drive safe out there. You never know what’s coming the other way.

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 23 May 2014. Reproduced with permission.

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