Could traffic technology overcome
the new aggressive road culture by 2030?

It's 2030.

Driving no longer requires human input. Social imperatives permit no opportunity for risk-taking. Drivers may be drunk or asleep in their vehicles; it doesn't matter. Road Control is looking out for them. System Telematics is driving the car, keeping them safe.

Will we ever make such a choice? Thirty years from now will the car cease to be a car? And if so, will it be a choice we are forced to make, because we have not found a way to end the carnage? The driving culture urgently needs to evolve into a safer, pleasanter, more social experience. What are the prospects for achieving this between now and 2030? What role will technology play?

At present the car culture is in the behavioural sink. Driver education notwithstanding, new drivers invariably conform to the informal culture of the road, which in recent years has been changing in the direction of greater individualism and aggressiveness. Typical drivers are highly self-righteous: their own driving is commendable; other drivers are troublemakers or inept. The pet peeves of these drivers, fondly reported in the media, are demonstrably bogus-the complaints of drivers who have not mastered the basics of interacting with other drivers in the social space of the road.

Thus, they approach the rats in ethnologist John Calhoun's experiments of the 50s. Deprived of the space they were used to, the rats became aggressive. They ran in packs, bit each other in the tail. Social norms ceased to apply. Their actions became unpredictable. In this context, Calhoun used the term, “the behavioural sink”. But in contrast to the rat situation, our rude and risk-laden driving owes more to cultural influences than to shrinking space.

Even the safety devices of this period appear to contribute to poor driving habits. Drivers with ABS will race up faster behind other cars before braking, and also maintain higher speeds. This fits in with Professor Gerald J.S. Wilde's theory of risk homeostasis: individuals have an idea of the amount of risk they are willing to run—target risk—which is based on their perception of risk. With air bags, impact reinforcement, etc., the perception is that the risk is less, and drivers compensate by driving faster and braking later.

With the introduction of speed limiters, lane departure alarms, and other safety devices, can we expect drivers to further compensate, and drive even more recklessly when they have the opportunity, or perhaps rely too much on telematics? To escape risk homeostasis, should we cease relying on human risk perception and aim to eliminate human input? Or can driver risk perception, through behaviour modification, be brought more in line with reality, so that drivers reduce their target risk?

One million road casualties over the last thirty years in the U.S. alone. One million! Not the injured, just the dead. Forty thousand plus every year on each side of the Atlantic. Eighty jumbo jets crashing in Europe and eighty in North America, every year. What sane person would want to fly? And then we have the wounded survivors, and the wounded relatives of the deceased. What a price for letting things slide!

Let's do it now. Let's kill the car culture. Rethink driver education. Our minds are bent. Let's bend them back again. Forget skill in handling the car. The infrastructure needs to be designed for the least skilled and the slowest drivers anyway—if we want safe roads. We need to teach the psychology and the sociology of driving. So we understand our obligations as actors in the social space of the road. We need insight into risk perception, how to relate perception to reality. We need to learn to drive without hurry—it's not a slogan but a process, and it can be done.

We need incentives for good driving. Lots of them. Rewards and recognition. And we need to be at all of this for the whole of our lives. So let’s measure up to our heritage as rational beings. Serious efforts could change road behaviour in a surprising and dramatic way almost from the start, though the full rewards would come gradually over the years. And surely the cost of this would not equal the social and material cost of doing next to nothing.

We need to destroy bad driving and we need to do it now. By whatever means we have.

What about technology? Speed limiters for instance—won’t they take the fun out of driving? No passing this one and the next one and the next one, just because they're in the way. No chasing somebody down. No more jabbing at the gas pedal in response to those little irritations encountered en route. And what if it’s my birthday and I feel like flying? Won’t we fall asleep or be hypnotized by the sheer monotony of it all?

Saner minds will not agree. Speed limiters, yes! Let us have them by all means, by heaven. What can we expect them to do? Eliminate speeding—hurrah for that! Prevent mindless passing—bravo! Make the speed limit an upper limit rather than a lower limit—excellent! Save the environment through less use of gas and windshield washer fluid, and cut emissions—what a bonus! Turn the rats of the behavioural sink back into human beings—it's about time!

Would speed limiters cause the traffic to flow more smoothly? Would they have a calming effect? Take the competitive element out of driving? Would they deal a death blow to highway individualism and the aristocracy of rage?

Quick, let’s find out. Two caveats. First, speed limiters that are set to the current limit by drivers themselves, with emergency override, ought to work best. We should not be quick to take control out of the hands of the driver. In a car culture that has to evolve, we need the co-operation and participation of drivers. Just because we have failed thus far to motivate them, does not mean that we should use technology solely to save ourselves the trouble and expense of trying harder. The second caution has to do with the inherent dangers in technologies designed to shortcircuit driver input in emergencies. In order to do this safely, the technology would need to be capable of correctly interpreting the total situation. Beware of that. Technology should not be a further tax on our attention, nor should it be an additional hazard. But it can compensate for human errors, limitations, and faults.

Strategically, the route we must take is behaviour modification. But technology can give those efforts a tactical boost from time to time. We should aim to neutralize, if not wipe out, the legendary “other guy”, the ubiquitous “idiot”. Make this seedy individual an endangered species by 2030. Technology can itself contribute to behaviour modification, as the opportunity for abuse—though not ultimate control—is taken out of the hands of abusive drivers.

So is it possible to change the car culture to one of cooperation and responsibility? Is it possible to cut road casualties by 50-75% or more by 2030?

Yes, by the gods. We have tolerated the carnage for far too long and shame on us for that. And now we have a meaner, more aggressive style of driving. Both the toll in lives and the corrupted car culture can and should be overcome. This entails new driver education programmes that start with children and continue throughout their lives, aiming to produce emotionally mature and socially responsible drivers. And it also means using whatever technology is at hand to help us reach our goals. Especially the goal of saving lives.


return to Sink

Breller Books 2002