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A licence to Kill

    Recently the letter columns of a local newspaper exploded with sympathetic outrage from writers supporting a motorist who collided with a safety barrier erected alongside a newly constructed cycle path. The point that the barrier was there to protect cyclists seemed to evade the writers, as indeed did the fact that any driver committing the same act during a driving test would be instantly failed.

    What causes this sort of thinking? Why do so many of us forget the lessons learned during our driving apprenticeship? And what can be done to raise driving standards in order to make it safer on the road for all users, not least of all cyclists and other vulnerable users.

    You might be interested in the views of the distinguished motoring correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, Sir John Whitmore who has his own views on the subject. We believe they deserve the widest circulation.

    Sir John is a former champion professional race-car driver, a businessman, and a sports psychologist who excels today as a management consultant. He is a well known advocate of "coaching" in business, and has written a best seller on the subject entitled: "Need, Greed or Freedom." Another popular work by Whitmore is: "Coaching for Performance: Growing People, Performance and Purpose

A Licence to Kill?

by Sir John Whitmore (Daily Telegraph)

    Although ten people die on our roads each day, Britain has one of the lowest 'accident' rates of any country, and this is expected to fall further. However fatalities will increase considerably in developing countries as vehicle usage expands.

    As far as Britain is concerned, education was most frequently cited as both the problem and the solution, and few would argue with that - if the definition of education is inclusive enough. Unfortunately most people regard driver education as what you get from a driving instructor at the beginning of your driving career, as opposed to a process of continuous learning that we can all engage in.

    The problem is that instructors teach us how to pass a test rather than how to become good drivers. Because of the failure of the Driving Standards Agency (DSA) to modernise (in terms of technique, the mental and emotional aspects of driving, educational methodology and testing), an instructor's skill and influence is limited by the demands of the test and the economics of the job.

    Despite this inefficient process, and because ordinary modern cars are relatively safe and easy to drive, most people know what they should do when behind a wheel. The problem is that they don't do what they know they should do.

    I suspect that the issue is rather different in developing countries, as more and more people start driving, and since what went on before was random to say the least. Our driver education system and the DSA in particular might actually be better suited to a country where the knowledge of how to drive and use the roads safely is less widespread.

    Modern cars might be safe in terms of braking, handling, and crash protection, but they are by no means as safe as they should be if they were made for transport rather than personal display. If it were illegal for manufacturers to sell cars with unsuitable levels of performance, they could be lighter, more economical and ecological, and their bodywork could be softer. Yet journey times would vary little from what they are today.

    What we see now is the primitive aspect of human nature given free rein by an unholy alliance of the driving establishment, the government and motor industry that permits us to keep killing each other. How else does one support a capitalist economy that remains sustainable only as long as we keep buying and gambling in a game that the house always wins? Put people first and all that changes.

    The game will continue for a while yet, so what can we do to make our roads safer, given that the powers that be and as-yet un-evolved drivers have little interest in doing so? It is a matter of driver education of course, but not the 'how to' stuff of the DSA. What stops people doing what they know they should ?

    Here's a partial list, not in any order of importance: distraction, tiredness, boredom, frustration, time pressure, competitiveness, inattention, ego, stress, fear, complacency. These are all mental or emotional states. It is well within human capacity to self-manage them with ease, but we are not taught such emotional literacy at school, and the DSA does not test for them.

    There is a way of teaching skills and understanding that is entirely different to the prevailing prescriptive approach and addresses this problem directly. While naturally developing the physical skills of drivers, the process continually enhances their observational skills, the management of their emotions and their sense of personal responsibility. It works on the whole person: the body, the intellect and the emotions.

    I am delighted to discover that the British School of Motoring (BSM) is adopting this method, at least in part, to train its instructors, but it cannot go further until the DSA changes the driving test. Don't hold your breath………..

    Before we leave the 'how to' altogether, here is some food for thought. There are a few journalists, some driving instructors, and too many drivers, particularly those who are members of the Institute of the so called Advanced Motorists and the like, who adopt the arrogant attitude that most drivers are idiots who don't know 'how to'.

    Apart from the fact that this attitude confines such 'know it alls' to a life surrounded by idiots, it is surely also a source of frustration and impatience, and certainly not a healthy state for a driver. If we take the view that other road users are doing their best they can with the circumstances, learning, concentration and fears that they have, we will treat them with far more compassion and consideration. And we ourselves might become better and safer drivers as a result.

    There is another breed of motorist that rails against speed limits, cameras and road humps. I don't particularly welcome these things either, but we need to remember that they are there for a reason: to slow us down. Speed is not the only factor in accidents, nor even the most significant, but it does make every accident worse. Nor do I buy the idea that the sole purpose of cameras is to make money: the authorities have many easier ways to do that.

    Let's face it, if we were all more mature and capable of benevolent self-regulation along with good judgement, there would be no need for cameras or road humps - or even for speed limits. These things exist because we are too immature to drive responsibly without them, and we further demonstrate that immaturity by railing against them.

    Britain's relatively low 'accident' rate encourages complacency by the driving establishment and licenses the delinquency of drivers by lulling them into a false sense of security. Every road death is one too many.

    We can do better, but it requires joined up thinking and a wholly different approach. Most of all it requires political will and selfless collaboration among driving organisations and road users. Is that too much to expect to save ten human lives each day?