The Psychology of Risky Driving

The Psychology of High-Risk Driving

As you sit in your car while waiting for the red light to turn green, you check your Twitter feed and play with the buttons on your car’s stereo system. Meanwhile, you feel impatient to get going, so you rev your engine and prepare to speed off on your way.

Before you know it, you’ve gunned the engine and screeched through the light, passing slow drivers ahead of you and cutting around them to take over the lane. Why are all the other drivers going that slowly, anyway?

If this sounds familiar, you—like many other drivers throughout Nova Scotia—may be a high-risk driver.

Interestingly, you don’t see yourself as a risk; you’re merely assertive and capable, unlike most of the other drivers on the road. While this may seem true for you, the reality is different than you imagine.

During a recent provincial survey on road safety, Nova Scotians were asked about their risky driving behaviours. Of the more than 1,400 respondents, one-third regularly speeds up to 15 kilometers an hour above the posted limit.

In 2013 alone, 73 percent of Nova Scotia drivers admitted to using cell phones while driving. In 2009, the percentage was 67 percent, making a six percent increase in the practice. Cell phone use has now surpassed speeding as a favourite risky behaviour on the road.

Additionally, most drivers agreed that driving while intoxicated was a serious offence; however, two out of ten respondents admitted they had driven their cars within 2 hours of drinking, and most people felt capable of driving after drinking.

So—what’s behind these numbers? Psychology tells the story.

Driving Motivators
During a 2011 lecture for the Road Safety Authority, Irish scholars from NUI Galway discussed the psychology behind risky driving.

First, they conceded that multiple factors play into our motivations on the road. They mentioned age as one factor. Unsurprisingly, the greatest number of risky drivers is between 17 and 24 years of age. Of these, the majority are males, followed closely by females in the same age group. After a large gap, males over 50 represent the next highest percentage of risky drivers.

When asked why they engaged in these behaviours, most of those surveyed listed the following motivators:
  • The desire for excitement and adrenaline
  • An ability to change one’s mind quickly and impulsively
  • A sense of power and enjoyment (being the centre of attention)
  • Anger over slow-moving vehicles
  • Entitlement for “bending the rules” (“I can do it if I don’t get into trouble.”)
  • One commonality behind these motivators is the desire to justify decisions and place blame on outlying factors. Additionally, most risky drivers feel the influence of peers, family, and significant others when they justify their choices.

For example, if a teenager hears from parents that law enforcers only want to fill municipal coffers with more revenue, the teen may speed more often. Such psychological or cultural reinforcement may be subliminal, but the influence is still real.

Another important factor is the sensation that each driver is in full control of his or her actions, not to mention the outcome. Driving fast makes drivers feel powerful and capable—even if they are not.

Several studies over the past decade point to the fact that males are more “present” oriented, while females tend to be “future” oriented. Those who have a sense of timelessness may engage in more impulsive, risky behaviours on the road. That said, females increasingly engage in texting on the road, which suggests that these patterns may be changing.

Behavioral Implications

Psychological data aside, just what does all this mean for future road safety in Nova Scotia? Here are a few implications:

  1. The teenage brain thinks (and acts) differently from the adult brain. Also, because teens’ motivations are different, they may not respond to cautionary suggestions in the same ways adults do.
  2. While texting may be on the rise, seat belt avoidance is on the decline. For every rise in risky driving behaviour, there appears to be an encouraging decline in another behaviour.
  3. Some personalities are more receptive to suggestion than others. For example, some drivers will change behaviour if their pocketbook is involved (ticketing costs, higher insurance premiums).
  4. Public service announcements do have an effect, even if it’s a gradual effect. Education is key.
  5. Safety campaigns that address generalized risky behaviours (not just while driving) may be more effective in raising awareness and changing behaviour.

Insurance for Risky Drivers

Finally, it’s important to note that people can change their behaviour behind the wheel. Even if you or a family member has had problems in the past, this doesn't have to jeopardize your future driving plans.

Talk to your insurance broker at Eisenhauer Insurance about ways that you can rectify past mistakes without impacting your insurance rates. We want to help you get back on the road and have a good experience. Meanwhile, stay safe.

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