‘Why do we lose common sense in traffic?’
Why do we keep on using our smartphone while driving? Why do we always think we’re better drivers than our fellow-road users? And why for god’s sake do even the most cultivated drivers sometimes lose their temper at the steering wheel? According to some specialists in traffic psychology, it’s because of our reptilian brain.
“In traffic, our reptilian brain goes on ahead of our human brain,” says Ludo Kluppels, specialized in traffic psychology at the traffic safety institute, Vias. “Logical thinking gives in to our automatisms and reflexes.”
According to Kluppels, our reptilian brain is the oldest part of our brain, responsible for our primary functions and impulsive reactions, steered by our reflexes. This system was useful for our ancestors in dangerous situations to be able to decide in the blink of an eye whether it was best to run or fight. Several millions of years later, our human brain developed functions like empathy or ethics, which made it possible for us to reflect and ask conscious questions.
“Driving a car is rather a question of reflexes than logical thinking because the technical movements we make are gradually made on autopilot. Moreover, most traffic situations ask for an immediate reaction; we hardly have the time to reflect, so our human brain is almost switched off,” Kluppels explains. “So, suddenly, we disregard other road users.”
“Our car is like a metal cage in which we are isolated from the outside world, and in the intimacy of our private car, we do all kinds of things – picking our nose, singing, farting – we would never do in any other circumstances or places like in the doctor’s cabinet, for instance. Our car makes us think we’re untouchable.”
On top of that, driving is not seen as an activity but as a way of moving from one point to another. So, once at the steering wheel, we’re more occupied by our daily activities than by what’s happening around us. And that’s fine as long as traffic moves on, but we immediately get frustrated when the situation gets out of control. Then our primary reactions come to the fore.
According to a traffic safety study within the context of the ESRA initiative (E-Survey of Road Users’ Attitudes), more than one-quarter (28%) of Belgian drivers – mainly young drivers – read or send messages with their smartphone, and 22% of them call with their mobile in hand.
Illusion of superiority
A bad attitude, as research of our eye movements has shown that we hardly look into our rearview mirrors while driving and using our mobile. We even hardly recognize the places we passed.
Then why are we convinced that we can drive and use our mobile at the same time? And why do we think we’re better drivers than the others? It’s an illusion of superiority, as the psychologists call it. “We tend to believe we’re superior to others, and that’s a defense mechanism of our brain. It’s completely normal.”
In the future, traffic psychology could help us to overcome some mobility problems by influencing drivers’ consciousness. By designing pedestrian crossings in three dimensions, for instance, drivers will automatically reduce speed in a 30 kph zone.
And what about the self-driving car? “Now we know that a diver reacts in a blink of an eye, but in an autonomous vehicle, reaction time will be longer since we will not be focused on driving. The more driving will be automated, the more important it will become to focus on our behavior at the steering wheel. A challenge not to be neglected.”