Consequences of bad decision making behind the wheel

Each day, people make decisions about both major and minor issues, sometimes after much thought and consideration and sometimes almost instinctively. Some of these decisions have no particular influence on the decision-maker’s life, but others can have long-term implications. For drivers, decisions can make the difference between a collision and an accident-free ride, and sometimes between life and death. Bad decision-making behind the wheel can be dangerous, but drivers can learn to make the best possible choices for each situation.

Basics of Decision-Making

Decision-making is a normal part of everyday life, and people would be unable to function without this capacity. According to Mike Erwin in his Harvard Business Review article on why people make bad decisions, a typical person makes about two thousand decisions each day, from deciding which shoes to wear to choosing a second career. Some decisions are individual, but others involve input from friends, family, or even strangers.

Laughing young woman wearing sunglasses driving a car with her girl friend , close up profile view through the open window

Many of the decisions people make are almost automatic and require very little thought. Choosing to wear boots on a snowy day, for example, is so natural and reasonable that most people would likely make the decision without any conscious thought. Choosing a second career, on the other hand, could require extensive consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of each option and deciding whether or not the change is worth the trouble.

Factors in Bad Decision-Making

Although people’s decisions can often be either neutral or good, bad decisions are extremely common both in daily life and behind the wheel of a vehicle. Mike Erwin outlines six major reasons why people make bad decisions. The first of these factors is decision fatigue. When people have to make many decisions in a short space of time or when they are already tired from a long day of making decisions at work or school, their capacity to make good choices may be impaired.

For drivers, decision fatigue can have serious consequences. If a driver is too mentally exhausted to decide when to change lanes or to choose how to deal with ice on the road, for example, the consequences could be deadly. Drivers should be able to assess when they are overtired or overstressed and try to avoid operating a vehicle at these times. Even if they have no choice about driving because if work or other commitments, they should monitor their decision-making processes and possibly pull over to the side of the road for a brief rest if necessary.

The second factor is a steady state of distraction. According to Erwin, researchers have estimated that people’s brains process five times as much information now as they did in 1986. While this can result in many exciting new ideas and inventions, it also means that people must deal with far more distractions than they did in the past. For drivers, listening to the radio or hearing a movie playing for the children in the back of the vehicle van be a major distraction, while the speed and volume of traffic can also make drivers lose their focus.

Distracted drivers tend to miss important clues on the road and can make bad decisions simply because they are not paying attention. They might go through red lights or miss stop signs, or they might neglect to do the proper shoulder and mirror checks before changing lanes. Their decision-making processes can be severely impaired, especially of they are not very much accustomed to dealing with distractions in the rest of their lives.

The third factor in bad decision-making is lack of input. In daily life, people often need input from others around them to give them the necessary range of ideas and choices to make a good decision. When they lack this input, they are more likely to make bad decisions, whether in their work life or at home.

The same principle applies with driving. It would be difficult and could potentially cause an accident to consult other people on the road about what to do in certain situations. However, drivers should know the rules of the road well enough to be able to decide on the best course of action for each situation. If the situation is dire, they can pull to the side of the road when it is safe to call a friend or family member, and they can call an expert in case of a vehicle breakdown.

The fourth factor that can negatively influence decision-making is multitasking. Some people can easily manage to perform two or more tasks almost simultaneously, but research indicates that decision-making skills can decline by forty percent when people are multitasking. This type of reduction in skills can be problematic enough in offices or home situations, but it can be extremely dangerous on the road.

Driving can be a very busy process, with the need to watch for traffic and other road users while staying in the correct lane at the right speed, and everything else a driver has to remember to do. If the process includes activities such as performing personal grooming tasks, caring for children, or reading maps, drivers can become too distracted to pay attention to what is happening on the road. Although some multitasking is inevitable behind the wheel to be able to watch the road while maintaining a steady speed and attending to everything they need to do, it is important for drivers to minimize other activities.

Emotions can also influence decision-making, both in everyday life and in driving. Acting in anger an have negative results for friendships and work, but it can be disastrous on the road. Road rage refers to situations where a driver becomes extremely angry and reacts violently to any issue, large or small. It can lead people to drive aggressively or even to attack other drivers.

Even positive emotions like happiness can cause problems for drivers and distract them from their task. When drivers pay more attention to thinking about a new job or a relationship than to the road, happiness can be a distraction. The same is true of worry, disgust, and many other emotions.        

The final factor is analysis paralysis. Researching the background to an issue can be a good way of gaining important information for making a good decision. However, sometimes people gain so much information that they become overwhelmed and may be unable to make a decision.

The same thing can happen for drivers. When they gain too much information for what their minds can manage, they may be unable to make a decision quickly enough to avoid an accident. This can be especially true for novice drivers who lack the experience to be able to assess which set of information they need in particular circumstances.

In these types of situations, it is helpful to have a good understanding of the rules of the road. Sometimes, drivers can make the best choice by simply considering the official rules and applying them. At other times, however, drivers must decide between two courses of action that both fit the rules, or they may encounter an unusual situation where the rules give only a general framework rather than specific help.

When they have either too much or too little information, inexperienced drivers may tend to become overwhelmed and to make mistakes. Even experienced drivers can find it difficult to maintain their focus and to use their knowledge in useful ways.

Drivers can develop their own techniques for dealing with analysis paralysis. When they are overwhelmed with information, for example, they can make a mental effort to get rid of any distractions and to focus on the most important elements of the situation.

When approaching a construction site, for example, a driver could concentrate on what is immediately ahead rather than looking too far down the road. On long, straight highways where drivers can be lulled to sleep, however, they might want to expand their field of analysis to include more information than they can see immediately ahead.

Consequences of Bad Decision-Making

The consequences of bad decision-making behind the wheel can be fatal or at least very dangerous. According to the Association for Safe International Road Travel, over 1.3 million people around the world die in road accidents every year, with 3700 dying every day. More than half of these deaths are among vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. In addition, another twenty to fifty million people receive injuries that can lead to permanent disabilities.

Some of these injuries and fatalities occur because of factors beyond a driver’s control, such as bad weather that limits visibility or causes the road to become slippery. However, many accidents result from bad choices that drivers make, such as neglecting to leave enough space between vehicles or going through amber lights. Inadequate vehicle maintenance can also be a problem if even a minor breakdown causes drivers to lose control of the vehicle.

Every decision that drivers make can influence the consequences that they face on the road. Learning to make good decisions that reduce danger and help to keep road users safe is important for everyone who gets behind the wheel. Bad decisions have negative consequences, but the process of becoming a good driver involves learning to make better choices.