Could traffic technology overcome
the new aggressive road culture by 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
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. Let0146s 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
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
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
Especially the goal of saving lives.