Importance of good decision making behind the wheel

Decision-making is part of everyday life, but it can sometimes take years to see the consequences of choices that people make. That is not the case with driving, where decisions can have immediate and often very dangerous results. For drivers of all ages and levels of experience, good decision-making behind the wheel is vital for staying safe on the road.

Driving as a Decision-Making Process

Driving is a complicated process involving many quick decisions and instant judgments. For example, a driver coming close to an intersection must gauge whether the light is likely to turn red or if there is still enough time to cross safely while the light is still green. Drivers must sometimes decide on how slowly they need to go for making turns or for going around curves or other potentially dangerous areas.

When pedestrians or cyclists are on the road, drivers must also decide on the right speed and distance for passing them, and they must decide on the right precautions to take when their view of the road is blocked by thick bushes or high snowbanks. Each day is slightly different, and drivers need to be able to use the experience that they have gained in the past while still recognizing that each situation is slightly different.

Some roads can be fairly easy for drivers, with few distractions and a simple set of choices to make. However, driving is normally much more complicated than that. According to the Government of Ontario’s web page on aging and driving, drivers can often make eight to ten decisions for every kilometre they drive. In some cases, drivers have under half a second to make a decision. Whether they are taking evasive action to prevent an accident or are deciding which exit to use on the freeway, drivers often need to make very rapid decisions on the road.

Aging and Decision-Making

Making so many decisions in a short space of time is complicated. As the government’s website notes, the issues related to decision-making change as people age. On one hand, older drivers have more experience than younger ones and can use the knowledge that they have gained over the years to guide them in the new situations that they encounter. On the other hand, people’s reaction times tend to slow down with age and their muscles can become stiff. Older drivers might no longer be physically able to handle situations that would be easy for a younger person.

For some drivers, these factors might make a few decisions necessary, especially about when and where to drive. For some, nighttime driving may be too difficult, while for others, a trip any longer than a few blocks could be too strenuous. Older drivers must be able to make good decisions about their fitness to drive and be willing to give up their licenses when their diminishing vision, reaction time, and physical capabilities make it too dangerous for them to drive.

Illness and Injury

Seniors are not the only people who should be making these decisions, however. Many people know the dangers of drinking or taking drugs before driving, although they might not always act according to that knowledge. However, they may be less aware of the dangers of driving with an injury such as a broken arm or sprained ankle, and they may be tempted to drive when they are physically unfit for operating a vehicle.

Even prescription or over-the-counter medications can cause potentially dangerous reactions for drivers, such as inducing drowsiness. Cold medications or many other legal drugs can make a person temporarily unfit for operating a vehicle safely. Factors like these vary from one person to another, and they can also vary from day to day. Drivers should be able to assess their ability to operate a vehicle and be able to make good decisions about whether to drive or take another form of transportation.

Costs and Benefits

Making a decision, whether good or bad, involves a variety of factors. As the Psychology Today website notes, the costs and benefits of each choice help people to decide on the best course for what they are doing. When the situation that people are facing is familiar, the decisions can be fast and automatic, based on their past experiences. Thus, a novice driver is likely to have more trouble than an experienced one with making decisions on the road because of limited practise in dealing with similar situations.

When people encounter unfamiliar situations, they are more likely to make bad decisions because they lack the experience to know where the decision is likely to lead. Their lack of experience with similar situations may lead them to make potentially dangerous choices that can cause serious problems for themselves and the people around them. However, calmly thinking the situation through can help them find ways to get through the situation.

Factors Influencing Decision-Making

Even with the best intentions, people often make bad decisions. Some of the reasons behind this, according to the Psychology Today website, are a lack of good information, urgent deadlines, and limitations on physical or emotional resources. Although these factors can influence many areas of life, they can be especially troublesome on the road.

Insufficient information on the road can potentially be deadly. Drivers who miss a detour sign, for example, could cause a traffic pileup or at least spend extra time trying to find their way back to the correct route. Not knowing that a road is especially busy during rush hour or that a particular bridge is more slippery than others in a snowfall can lead drivers to make decisions that could cause significant problems for others. However, gaining as much information as possible can help.

Urgent deadlines can lead drivers to make especially bad decisions. Drivers who are in a rush tend to speed, cut in and out of traffic, and generally take far more risks than they should. Often, avoiding these kinds of situations is relatively easy if drivers prepare well for even the shortest trip and then take their time. Often, aggressive driving behaviour happens because a driver has failed to allow enough time to get to an appointment or an event. Even in unexpected situations, such as an accident blocking traffic, however, drivers can avoid rushing if they call to change the meeting or the appointment.

The third factor in bad decision-making is the problem of limited physical or emotional resources. While this includes the factors related to age, injury, or the use of legal or illegal substances, it can also include a variety of other factors. For example, a driver who is physically capable of driving could be emotionally unfit to make the necessary decisions because of receiving either good or bad news that causes a distraction from watching the road. Driving a vehicle requires concentration on potential dangers to be able to avoid situations that could cause accidents.

In addition to these factors, people should be able to recognize their own decision-making styles. Some people are prone to making quick decisions, which can be helpful on the road, but which can also lead them to make bad choices based on too little information. Other people might have trouble making decisions at all and can cause problems on the road through their hesitation.

In both cases, it can help if people anticipate upcoming decisions. If people choose beforehand what they should do in certain situations, they can more easily make a good decision when the time comes. For example, drivers can review the rules for four-way stops or traffic lights, or they can decide in their own minds what they will do in certain scenarios.  

Gaining practical experience is also important. If possible, drivers should practise their skills in low-risk situations, such as on quiet residential streets or in parking lots where the chances of a collision are lower than on busy streets. Even after drivers initially learn the skills they need, they should continue to develop their abilities and to find new ways of dealing with the situations they encounter.

An Ongoing Process

Decision-making is an ongoing process throughout the day and throughout a person’s life. According to Mike Erwin in his Harvard Business Review article, people typically make about 2000 decisions each waking hour. Some of these decisions are almost automatic and can be largely subconscious, such as the decision on when to eat a meal. Other decisions, however, are more complicated and take conscious thought.   

The same is true of decisions behind the wheel of a vehicle. At first, almost all decisions require conscious thought because drivers have not yet developed the skills they need for good choices to become instinctive. With experience, however, these choices become so ingrained that drivers barely need to think about what to do. If they want to change lanes, for example, they will automatically engage the turn signal and check the mirrors because they have performed the same move many times before. Positive decisions become a regular part of driving.

Useful decisions are important in every part of life, but the effects of bad decision-making behind the wheel can be immediate and often deadly. Learning to make good decisions can help drivers to operate their vehicles more skilfully, helping to prevent accidents and to help keep everyone safe on the road.