The Psychology of driving

As I left the house today a woman slowed down in her car and slowly edged forward while drifting to the wrong side of the road. She appeared to be looking for a particular house or apartment building.

She ground to a halt and then after a few seconds she started off more quickly again, but of course she was on the wrong side of the road. Meanwhile a car had come up close behind her and started to pass. When the woman in front set off and started to drift to the correct side of the road, the other driver blasted his horn long and loud, and swerved around her, through a rapdily disappearing space.

Which got me thinking about the psychology of interpersonal behaviour in the context of driving, here in Israel, and how it compares to my experience of drivers and driving in other countries.

In countries where the vast majority of drivers ‘stick to the rules’ and drive in a predictable way, any deviation from that behaviour immediately sends signals to other drivers, who ‘sit up’, ‘pay attention’ and act accordingly. If they are skilled (and in the main, drivers are skilled) they will hold back a little and allow the incident to develop. They will not rush forward in an effort to maintain forward momentum, come what may.

But in Israel, where the number of drivers who drive in unpredictable ways is much higher than in the United Kingdom, Western Europe or the U.S.A., the result is that drivers are most apt to see erratic behaviour as ‘normal’. After all, they themselves might be one of the erratic drivers. But even a good driver sees a lot of poor driving. One sees it all the time and every day and both in and out of town.

So erratic driving is practically normal. And what is ‘normal’ does not rise into consciousness and does not attract a driver’s attention.

Of course drivers one could say that drivers should remain on ‘high alert’ all the time, but that is not a realistic response. The toll on the psyche would be too much. Each journey would stretch them to breaking point. So instead of being on ‘high alert’ all the time, they do what anyone does in a given situation – they get used to it.

And so, in the case of the incident today, the driver who came up behind the wandering driver, did not see anything unusual in the fact that the wanderer was on the wrong side of the road and edging forward. He saw no reason to slow down or hang back to see how the situation might develop. In all probability he did not see a ‘situation’ at all.

On the contrary, he did what most Israelis do when there is a slow car in front of them. He came as close as he could without actually hitting the car in front, and then continued past it.

So when the car in front speeded up and started to drift to the correct side of the road, the driver behind was not prepared for that to happen and could not react properly.

Now the definition of ‘properly’ in my opinion, is to drive with caution, allowing space for things to unfold. In Israel the definition of driving ‘properly’ to avoid incidents is to drive through the incident as quickly as possible.

And what happens if someone does hold back and take a more conservative or rational view of how best to deal with bad driving? Every car around will blast its horn at the the poor man who failed to maintain forward momentum.

And what can we think about what will happen in the longer term in a country with such driving behaviour?

As each incident succeeds the last, the general spiral downward is to a country of drivers who are prepared to see almost any driving behaviour as normal, and thus become less and less able to react properly when things happen that threaten them.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the number of accidents in this country.