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Is legal driving safe driving?

By: Pierro Hirsch

Date: Wednesday, 06. December 2006

Pierro Hirsch is owner/operator of a driving school in Montreal, Quebec, and is a Ph.D. Candidate in Public Health at the Universit� de Montr�al.


Legal and/or safe: a personal choice
How do we learn to drive?
The driver's license exam
Safety margins and safety protocols
Some potential benefits of developing safety protocols


A survey of traffic accident literature reveals a marked lack of agreement on what constitutes a valid measure of driving safety. The only consensus shared by researchers seems to be that involvement in an automobile accident is not, by itself, considered a reliable indicator of "unsafe" driving. This discussion paper suggests that one of the reasons for this lack of clarity may be the tendency to confuse the interrelated but distinctly different concepts of "legal" and "safe" driving. I will attempt to demonstrate how this confusion hinders the effectiveness of driver education and potentially perpetuates risky driving behaviour. Mayhew (1990) has correctly noted that defining the act of safe driving in terms of its outcome does not explain what it is about the act that is critical to collision avoidance. It is precisely my hope that the discussion of the differences between legal and safe driving will shed some light on the nature of safe driving behaviour. In conclusion I will propose a cognitive approach to collision-prevention training and driver licensing based on the teaching of safety protocols.

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Legal and/or safe: a personal choice

Legal driving is defined by the letter of the law. Safe driving, according to Quenault (1967), is defined as "the absence of unusual manoeuvres and the non-occurence of near accidents". Conversely, Quimby (1988) defined unsafe or risky driving "as any action or lack of action on the part of the driver that increases their risk of a collision".

Depending upon the circumstances, legal driving can be either safe or risky, and safe driving can be either legal or illegal. Take speed as an example. According to Quimby (1988), exceeding the legal speed limit is not necessarily unsafe, because safe speeds must be judged with reference to prevailing traffic and weather conditions. Implicit in Quimby's definition is the importance of road configurations in assessing safe driving behaviour. Summala (1987) observed engineers exceeding the speed limit, quite safely we assume, en route to a road safety conference. And, if one index of safety is the fatality rate per unit distance traveled, then German Autobahns, with average speeds of 132 km/h (82 mph), well in excess of U.S. limits, were as safe as U.S. Interstates. (Lenz 1990)

And what is the ideal (both legal and safe), following distance between vehicles? Experts determine that under ideal conditions, total driver reaction time plus braking distance demands a minimum safe following distance of two seconds (Evans, 1991). However, the law only requires that drivers follow, "at a prudent and reasonable distance", taking all relevant conditions into account (Highway Safety Code, 1984). Due to its vagueness, the legal definition is not often enforced, thus automatically validating all subjective assessments of the meaning of "prudent and reasonable". Quimby (1988) and Wasilewski (1979) both note that one of the most common risky driving acts is following too closely in traffic. Drivers who do so may not even be aware that they are driving illegally, and due to the rare nature of collisions, they may not even be concerned about their safety. A driver stopped at an intersection who responds to a fresh green light by pressing on the accelerator (after first yielding to any vehicles and pedestrians already in the intersection), is practicing legal but unsafe driving. It is not a rare event for vehicles, especially trucks, to run a red light (Evans, 1983). Glancing left and right at the intersection before proceeding, especially if first in line at a green light, is an absolutely essential safety habit. But it is not required by law, and, therefore, new drivers who take the necessary time to check intersections during their licence exam, may be penalized for "excessive" caution.

By far the most pernicious example of risky legal driving concerns children. Howarth (1985) noted that drivers behave as though it is the child's responsibility to avoid the collision. Evans (1991) states that:

"If drivers adopted safer driving practices...such a behaviour change would spare large numbers...the burden of having to claim, with legal correctness, that the six year old child was killed because it was the child's fault." p.157

Evans (1991) contends that the legal categorization of 'not at fault' collisions tends to convey "an erroneous impression that these drivers are helpless vicitims of crashes which occurred entirely outside their control." He suggests a third categorization, one denoting that the collision-involved driver, while not legally at fault, could have avoided the collision by driving in a more appropriate manner.

Momentarily disregarding the conspicuous minority of illegal risky drivers, the question arises; why would anyone ignore well publicized safety habits (i.e. the 2-second following rule) and drive as though their responsibility for collision involvement was limited only to legal driving rules? One reason might be the very powerful influence of insurance liability regulations and societal laws that exonerate the not-at-fault party in a collision. But this alone is not enough to account for risky driving behaviour that potentially threatens the lives of the driver, his passengers and other road users. I believe that other significant causal factors for this behaviour are related to how these individuals initially acquire their driving skills, the standards of the driver licence exam, and the rare nature of traffic collisions.

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How do we learn how to drive?

Comprehensive answers to this question are obviously outside the scope of this discussion, but some aspects of the process may provide insight into the failure of driver education and the development of risky driving habits. The early or cognitive phase of skill aquisition (Fitts, 1967) concerns itself with psychomotor coordination and the development of vision habits (Mourant, 1972). At this time, new drivers are learning the rules of car control (Dreyfus, 1986). Although safety is a primary consideration, much of the novice driver's attention must be devoted to acquiring driving skills, and on learning the rules of the road (Evans, 1991). Driving is a "self-paced task," however, and the basic skills are learned by direct feedback, with minimal instruction. Evans (1991) observes that most people could probably learn by trial and error.

Next is the intermediate, or associative phase, when new patterns emerge and are corrected. (Fitts, 1967) Dreyfus (1986) call this the advanced-beginner stage, where the new driver learns, for example, to distinguish between the behaviour of the distracted or drunken driver and the alert one. He also outlines additional stages of competence, proficiency and expertise, which correspond to Fitts' third and final autonomous stage. According to Dreyfus, when a driver becomes competent:

"He is no longer merely following rules designed to enable him to operate his vehicle safely and courteously , but drives with a goal in mind. If he wishes to get from point A to point B very quickly... He follows other cars more closely than normally, enters traffic more daringly, and even violates the law . " p.24 [Italics Added]

McKnight et al. (1984) note that new drivers lack the ability to divide their attention between control and safety functions. It is probable that, as is reflected in the preceding paragraph, safety is often perceived as being in conflict with mobility, the real goal of driving. The choice of enhanced mobility, or at least the appearance of it, derived from driving at greater speed in a more daring style, is made more attractive when the risks of detection by the police or involvement in a collision appear small. The initial success of this behavioural choice is self-reinforcing, and may have a profound influence on the manner in which new driving skills are acquired. In other words, the observation of McKnight et al. (1984) about limited abilities to divide attention may also be reflective of our transportation value system and the youthful exuberance of his study population.

In the final stage of driving skill acquisition all the rules that are considered necessary to the task have been acquired, and driving becomes autonomous. Performance is inflexible and automatic (Fitts, 1967). The expert driver becomes "one with his car" (Dreyfus, 1986). But he does not necessarily become safer. Race car drivers have been known to have an above average number of traffic violations and collisions (Williams, 1974). Is this because safe driving rules were not introduced or reinforced at critical periods during the acquisition of their driving skills? How much is reckless driving behaviour a result of personality and self-induced exposure and how much is simply due to the force of habit?

The final stage of driving skill acquisition corresponds very well to the concept of "automaticity," which has recently emerged as a central construct in cognitive psychology to explain driver behaviour (Ranney, 1994). According to this concept, all activities are assumed to combine fast automatic components with slower, more deliberate, controlled processing. Thus a driver can read a book and still drive smoothly. Any important situational factors that he perceives will increase his uncertainty and trigger a shift in attention from automatic to controlled processing. Perhaps some risky drivers, racers for example, never develop automatic safe driving habits, and, as a result, they experience safe driving as stressful because it requires the intervention of slower, controlled processing which cannot be maintained comfortably for long periods of time?

Why are some driving habits acquired more quickly and easily than others? One obvious answer is through the frequency of their repetition and reinforcement. Evans (1991) points out that drivers tend to stop and wait at red lights even when no police car or other vehicle is present. Why aren't other safe driving habits more automatic? One potential reason, also suggested by Evans (1991), is that "safety cannot be learned by direct feedback but requires the absorption of accumulated knowledge and the experience of interactions with others...". This explanation is both vague and discouraging. Firstly, the learning mechanism of "absorption" does not explain how to teach safe driving or even what it is, and secondly, if the others with whom new drivers "interact" are not themselves safe drivers, then patterns of risky driving behaviour will be learned and perpetuated.

Evans (1991) remarks that "the difference between skillful driving and avoiding crashes is so basic as to suggest a course focused more specifically on safety..." (p. 156). This is ironic, since Evans himself found,"no convincing evidence that driver education, or increased driving skill and knowledge, increase safety." (Robertson 1980, Lund 1986, Potvin 1988) However, he considers that these failures do not negate the potential of driver education and cites the claim by Michon (1989) that cognitive rule-based approaches hold promise. This promise will only be realized when we know more about the nature of the cognitive rules for safe, or collision-avoidance driving, and how they compare with those for risky driving. And when we know which factors determine whether drivers acquire safe or risky habits, and what role, if any, the licence examination plays in the process?

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The driver's licence exam

Generally speaking, driving exam standards "are not extreme" (Mayhew, 1990). They merely test minimal, legal, car control skills. In Quebec, the entire road test is no longer than 30 minutes. And under the current system, the investment of time and money made by individuals preparing for their licence exam, and the standards of driver education, are determined largely by the standards of the licence exam. These standards are arguably low. But stricter classifications are also arguably vague and would result in lower pass rates and the exclusion of large segments of the potential driving population. Public policy makers are naturally reluctant to implement any changes in this system that are certain to decrease mobility while only potentially increasing safety.

Despite its relatively low standards, for most teenagers and many young adults the licence exam is generally considered to be, even by the parents of teenage drivers, the final proof of driving competence, sometimes referred to as a rite of passage into the adult world (Plato, 1983). Aside from its potent symbolic value, does the fact of passing a driving exam indicate any real accomplishment in terms of safe driving skills? Macdonald (1987) observed that "passing the test will not predict safe driving behaviour...", and that "the desire to pass the road test can supersede the way (new drivers) will drive later, therefore, the performance during the test may actually reflect a very unrepresentative display of driving".

It is possible that MacDonald's (1987) observation relates to the difference between controlled and automatic processes described by Ranney (1994). Behaviour is, more or less, the automatic, natural response to a situation, and performance is the controlled response. New drivers perform for their licence examiner. In other words, the controlling function directs their psychomotor activities to execute each driving manoever with special care. The fact that this is not a normal way to drive may account for some of the nervousness examination candidates experience.

But, as was previously stated, the standards of the licence exam are not too demanding. If this level of driver performance had not become automatic prior to the exam, how would drivers behave after, when they are no longer under pressure to perform to external standards? One could reasonably expect legal driving behaviour to deteriorate after testing. Wittink and Twisk (1990) did, in fact, observe that young drivers seemed to have forgotten most of what they learned, presumably about legal driving, when they underwent a 3-month post-licence review.

It is not known at what stage of the learning curve most drivers acquire their licence or whether or not all drivers develop equal levels of automatic behaviour. Nor is it understood why some drivers exhibit safe behaviour, accumulating few, if any, collisions or infractions, while other drivers exhibit risky driving behaviour that does not decrease with age (Rajalin, 1994). It is probable that part of the difference between the two groups is associated with different exposure conditions during the transition from beginner to expert driver. The life-time peak performance of legal driving skills exhibited by most drivers could very well occur during their driver's licence examination. Later on, illegal driving behaviour would be mediated by deliberate or intuitive safe driving behaviour, for example rolling through stop signs while checking the intersection.

The question remains, how much influence would a more thorough licence exam have on the early and subsequent development of safe driving skills? If the present driving exam does not seem to have a long term effect on post-test legal driving behaviour, would a different exam, one that required a more comprehensive demonstration of safe driving skills, have a different or more pronounced influence on the subsequent, unsupervised behaviour of newly licensed drivers? Could such a standard of driver behaviour be developed and enforced without first legislating new driving regulations for all drivers, in order to bridge the gap that presently exists between legal and safe driving rules?

Or would all these efforts be in vain due to the fact that risky drivers possess certain inherent psychological traits that would interfere in some manner with the critical formation of "safe" habits? Once automaticity is reached, are driving habits relatively fixed and stable or can they be changed and adjusted at any time? For example, consider a driver's habitual or automatic driving behaviour at interesections. Viano (1990) has speculated that the increased incidence of side-impact collisions involving older drivers might result from the fact that "subjective safety margins learned in youth continue to be applied even as the senses and information processing capacities decline". Perhaps a clue to the answer to some of the above questions lies in understanding the role of habitual or automatic safety margins in driving behaviour.

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Safety margins and safety protocols: a preventive measure for car collisions

Sabey (1979) concluded that 95% of road collisions result solely or partly from human error. Regardless of the numerous uncontrollable variables in each situation, a safe driver is always conscious of the fact that he is driving within a safety margin that is largely under his control. The conscious adjusting of safety margins (for example, when older drivers reject a higher percentage of gaps during on-road merging ) is an example of the use of safety margins to enhance personal safety (Wolffelaar, Rothengatter, and Brouwer 1987). According to Brehmer (1990), drivers select safety margins to protect themselves against the negative results of their errors. Collision occurence in relation to increasing speed and speed variablity strongly suggests that drivers are overestimating their skills and/or underestimating the safety margin appropriate to the situation.

In consideration of the above, and in response to Mayhew's (1990) criticism of circular definitions, I submit that the act of safe driving is precisely the act of maintaining adequate margins of safety around the car at all times and in all circumstances. This goal is achieved through the habitual use of safety protocols, or nested groupings of associated driving rules, which, in turn, are based upon the primacy of the role of vision in safe driving (Smith 1956, Mourant 1972, Owsley 1994), and upon the empirically and experientially determined limits of driver-car-roadway interactions.

The following is an example of one safety protocol that combines vision and anticipation habits. A safe driver habitually looks 12-15 seconds ahead as he drives down the road. If he notices a potential hazard in his lane, i.e. a double-parked delivery vehicle, he responds by covering his brake pedal with his right foot, applying only enough pressure, to activate his brake lights. He instantly accomplishes two risk-reducing benefits. By decreasing his speed, he increases the available time and space he may need to execute a lane change, and he warns the driver behind him that he may have to stop if a lane change is not possible.

In reality, this safety protocol requires far less time than it takes to type one word, and it can be performed without interrupting conversation. Safety protocols could be among the "susceptible skills" that Sivak (1981) recommended as a countermeasure for the negative consequences of transient human states, such as stress and fatigue, on driving behaviour.

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Some potential benefits of developing safety protocols

Many research directions in traffic safety are difficult to investigate because of the multifactorial nature of the concepts, the lack of precision and control over relevant variables, and the everpresent difficulty of collecting reliable data. An empirically determined and validated set of safety protocols, designed to ensure each driver the maximum safety with the maximum mobility, could become a useful "gold standard" for many research projects and safety interventions. Once established, these safety protocols could provide an observable measure of safe driving skill that is not dependent for immediate validation upon negative outcomes such as collisions and demerit points. Arbitrarily establishing public health standards based upon valid scientific principles is not unprecedented and seems imminently justifiable in the face of the importance of the public health threat represented by driving.

Consider Mayhew's (1990) recommendation for graduated licensing:

" consensus exists on exactly what balance should be given to motivational versus skill based factors in course content. Moreover, precisely what the critical factors are that contribute to the collisions of young and older novice drivers remains elusive. Even so, formal instruction continues to hold promise, particularily to the extent that its rationale and content more closely align and articulate with licensing systems , especially graduated ones." p.156 [Italics Added]

A valid set of safety protocols might potentially answer many of requirements expressed above. It resolves, at least temporarily, the question of skill versus motivational factors in teaching, because safety protocols, properly instituted, are a balanced blend of both. Only a minimal amount of skill is required to learn them and the motivation to practice and perfect them is determined by their prominence in the driver's licence exam. Once acquired, they are habitual and do not necessarily require the "conscious" participation of the driver. Moreover, safety protocols have the potential for creating an improved learning and driving environment by stressing that all drivers and pedestrians are equally at risk if and when they neglect the basic rules of road safety. This would remove some of the traditional focus from young drivers, as is recommended by Rothe (1991).

Safety protocols, hypothetically, are the positive expression of critical risk factors that, when neglected, contribute to collision involvement. They objectively and constructively represent the sensitive problem of driver responsibility for collisions in that they focus on the correct driver reponses to each potential collision situation, and not on driver error. There are actually only a limited number of common collision situations, so the protocol guidelines need not be complicated to be fairly exhaustive. Both collisions and near-collisions can be studied from the perspective of these protocols in order to refine and update the safety rules, especially as new car technologies are implemented. This is a particularly timely need, since old driving habits and new cars are not always compatible. Consider the case of experienced drivers who pump the brakes of their A.B.S. equipped cars, thus failing to maximize their safety benefit. A standard user-friendly and regularly updated protocol of safe driving routines would serve as a useful interface between drivers and automotive engineers.

A protocol of driving safety that has been validated by the research community might also satisfy Mayhew and Simpsons' (1990) requirement for a driver eduation program "whose rationale and content could align and articulate with licensing systems". The protocols can provide a common reference point that is potentially superior to the official, legal rules of the road in that the former does not ask drivers to have faith that other drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, rollerbladers, etc... will always behave predictably.

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As Ranney (1994) summarizes:

"No comprehensive model of driving behaviour has been developed, and, given the wide variety of driving situations and associated combinations of component skills, it is unlikely that one will emerge soon."

Without a theoretical basis, it is highly unlikely that any effective educational programme can be developed to reduce the incidence of driver error in traffic. And without a validated system of screening risky drivers, licence exam standards will remain as they are, and driver education cannot become more effective because the general public will only make the minimum investments necessary for licence exam preparation, or insurance premium discounts, where applicable. In brief, major improvements in the field of driver education do not appear to be forthcoming.

For all the above reasons, I believe that the establishment of a set of safety protocols holds great promise. Following the guidelines of the OECD (1994), safety protocols avoid the unclear concept of drivers' "attitude" and the panoply of inefficient countermeasures which that concept has generated. Protocols are composed of individual rules or habits, so they are easily segmented and lend themselves to simple and relevant messages which emphasize proper planning and anticipation on the part of the driver. And protocols are factual. They stress the positive aspects of each driver's ability to control his own level of safety, regardless of the driving environment. If properly and consistently implemented in all relevant areas, ranging from educational curricula and licence testing to driver improvement programs, safety protocols could influence the way people think about the role of the driver in collision avoidance. And that might be the necessary first step towards improving the way people drive.

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Barry was a fantastic inrtsuctor! Barry gave me so much confidence. Even now nearly two year on still hear Barry check your mirrors.. Barry was so patient and explained things to me in a way I could understand! My family think barry's fantastic. Barry would explain things to you untold amounts of times so that he knew you understood. You feel at ease and can have a great laugh, makes it easy and fun to learn and everything you are taught is really thorough. Barry helped me with my theory and helped put it in to practice whilst out on the road an I passed my theory first time!! Same as my practical I passed first time with only a fee minors. Every hour was well spent and I learned so much every time. I recommended Barry to my family and would recommend him to every body out there!!!! Barry is the best inrtsuctor for you if you're willing to learn and have fun.. I absolutely loved my lessons and looked forward to them every week. Thank-you for teaching me to drive Barry x x


People who believe using a cell phone while divirng is just basic multi-tasking and doesn't affect their divirng are sadly deluded. Every person who talks on a cell while behind the wheel should be forced to watch a video of him/her self. It absorbs enough of your attention that your reactions, unbeknownst to you, are slowed. It only takes a fraction of a second delay at 60 mph to kill or be killed. We will never know what percentage of accidents are caused by cell phone use, but you can call any police force you want, and find traffic officers that have attended accident scenes and found cell phones on the floor, TURNED ON, and sometimes STILL CONNECTED! Nobody sees the driver throw it there, but there is no other explanation. I will not use the cell phone in traffic, or on the highway, except in emergency. Twice I have used it while divirng to call police.

abel R,

the state of Florida. di u know that many can't have driver license and because thy don' have legal status,
and many officerrs take advantage of this, they just stand by the neighborhoods and stop every body who look like latins taking them to court or arresting them. I think that is not fair, because is the state who don't give the document!!!!


It would also help if the community in which you live, supports safe driving habits and enforces traffic laws. If you like to drive fast and recklessly, come to Aspen, CO. The Sherrif here does nothing to help a very serious situation.

Walter H,

In the driver training world we don't talk about car lenghts any more, we talk about seconds. It's a lot easier and more accurate because safe following distance is all about perception time and reaction time. If the car ahead of you hits the brakes suddenly you have to see, figure out what's happening, and then get your foot to the brake. That takes 1 - 2 seconds no matter how quick you are, and that's only if you are paying attention. You'll find the 2-second rule described here ...


What is the safe driving distance in car links?

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