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  • Writer's pictureFleet Mentor

The Psychology Behind the Wheel: Understanding the Cognitive Dynamics of Safe Driving

In this first article in our series 'Mastering The Drive: The Human Factor', we'll delve into the fascinating world of driver psychology, exploring the underlying cognitive processes that shape safe driving behaviours and contribute to effective fleet risk management. For ease of reading, we've divided this article into 2 parts.

A person driving along a road

It's important to remember that driving isn't solely about operating a vehicle and getting from A to B faster than walking; it's a complex cognitive activity that involves an intricate interplay of perception, attention, decision-making, and stress management.

Perception on the Road

a glass ball altering the reflection of some trees.

Once we get over the basic driving skills of operating the vehicle, driving truly begins with perception—how we interpret and process information from our surroundings. Most importantly is visual perception, which is crucial for drivers to spot potential hazards on the road. This includes recognising obstacles, pedestrians, cyclists, or other vehicles, allowing drivers to anticipate and react accordingly. From learning to drive to the highest levels of advanced driving, a key concept is 'lateral vision'; the ability to scan into the distance and to the sides to spot potential hazards. Making a conscious effort to extend our vision higher up to the horizon and out to the sides of the road can significantly help our perception of upcoming dangers.

Sound helps us create visual imagery. As in if you hear a loud motorcycle as you're walking along the road, you're brain will assume you're about to see a motorcycle. This is auditory perception which helps drivers maintain situational awareness and listen for warnings such as horns or emergency services vehicles. Conversations and even music can have an impact on our ability to hear things as drivers and understanding the need to react to auditory cues can help drivers greatly. A simple action that can help with auditory perception is opening the windows when reversing or exiting a difficult junction, as we can often hear other vehicles approaching before we see them.

Attention and Focus

'Inattention' or 'attention diverted' are often noted as one of the most common reasons for collisions. How many times have you driven along a familiar road and thought, 'how did I get here'? Like escaping from a trance of our own internal thoughts to suddenly realise we don't remember the last mile or two of driving. It's commonplace, but this 'autopilot' mode that many drivers find themselves in poses a significant risk. Attention is paramount for safe driving as it directly influences a driver's ability to perceive, process, and respond to road conditions.

There are many things that can take our attention away from the road. Distractions, whether internal (e.g., thoughts or emotions) or external (e.g., mobile phones, passengers, or environmental factors), can significantly impair a driver's attention and compromise road safety.

Thankfully, there's some simple things you can do to reduce the risk of distractions:

  • Limit Passenger Distractions - Avoiding deep or emotionally charged conversations that can have an impact on the driver's attention.

  • Plan Ahead - Set up GPS or navigation devices before starting the journey to minimise distractions while driving.

  • Take Breaks - Fatigue can easily impair attention. Taking regular breaks, especially during long journeys, will help keep the brain fresh.

  • Practice Mindfulness - Consciously focusing on the present moment, the road, and the surroundings, reduces the chances of driver's attention drifting away.

Decision-Making Under Pressure

Driving often requires split-second decisions. And split-second decisions involve complex internal processes, particularly decision-making, which can be significantly impacted during high-stress or emergency situations.

The first stage of our decision-making process begins with processing the information we've gathered. Drivers continuously gather information from their surroundings—traffic signs, road conditions, other vehicles - which is then processed to make split-second decisions.

Once we have the information, we then risk assess it. This is when then evaluate the potential hazards to prioritise them, look for the most relevant and ignore or discard what we deem as irrelevant. If you've taken a driving test since 2002 (in the UK at least), you'll likely have had to pass a hazard perception test. This test doesn't only assess how many hazards we can spot or how quick we react to them, but also looks at our hazard prioritisation. There's not much point focusing on a pedestrian in a car park on the far side of the road if you have a vehicle about to drive out in front of you. We use this risk assessment to predict likely outcomes.

After assessing the risks, we have to select appropriate responses. These decisions often require quick judgment to navigate through traffic, avoid collisions, or handle unexpected situations and involve our choices to change speed, direction or give a warning.

We make hundreds of these decisions on each drive and a good tool to have in place in the back of your mind is a common sequence we use in advanced driving - We often refer to this process as O.A.P. - Observe, Anticipate, Plan.

a wooden toy showing stress

Whilst the O.A.P. routine is a great technique, we are after all, human. How many people do you know that lead a completely stress-free life? If you do know any, please send them our way so we can learn how that works. Our overall ability to observe, anticipate or plan can be significantly impacted by our stress levels.

Stress triggers the release of hormones like cortisol, which affects our thought processes meaning that high-stress situations often impair a driver's ability to process information effectively, leading to slower decision-making and decreased attention. Stress can also create a phenomenon known as "tunnel vision," where drivers focus excessively on a specific thing or hazard, ignoring other critical information. This narrowing of attention limits their ability to make well-informed decisions. Stressful situations often evoke emotional responses, potentially leading to impulsive decisions or actions driven by fear, anger, or panic, which might not be the best outcome for safety.

Some helpful tips to alleviate the impact of stress whilst driving are:

Deep Breathing and Relaxation Techniques: Practicing deep breathing or relaxation exercises when feeling stressed reduces stress hormones, promoting a calmer state of mind.

Cognitive Reframing: This is something we often promote on our training courses. By training drivers to reframe their thoughts during stressful situations this encourages them to focus on problem-solving rather than becoming overwhelmed by the stressor.

Taking a Moment to Assess: Take a breath. By taking a brief moment to assess the situation before making decisions. This allows for a more measured response rather than reacting impulsively under stress.

The key word we often promote is composure. A stressed decision is often a rushed decision which is then often the wrong decision. Understanding when you're stressed and learning to employ strategies to combat it, will lead to a more proactive, safer and much more relaxed drive.

Risk Perception and Assessment

Perceiving and evaluating risks on the road involves an intricate array of psychological factors that can influence drivers' behaviours and decisions. Understanding these factors is crucial in aligning drivers' risk perception with actual risks. Whilst there have been many studies on driver risk, in its simplest form we could ask the question, 'what type of driver are you?'

a person gripping a car steering wheel

Whilst we all have our own unique personalities born both from our genetic traits through to our own life experiences (we won't get drawn into the Nature/Nurture argument here), its commonplace that drivers have their own biases that can affect the ability to perceive risk. Here we'll explore the most common:

Optimism Bias: This bias leads individuals to believe they are less likely to experience negative events compared to others. In driving, we often hear of the concept of 'it won't happen to me'. This is optimism bias and drivers may underestimate their likelihood of being involved in a collision, believing that mishaps won't happen to them due to their driving skills or luck.

Overconfidence Bias: According to research by Applied Cognitive Psychologist Dr Gemma Briggs most drivers tend to be overconfident in their abilities and consider themselves to be better than the average driver. They may believe they can handle challenging situations better than they actually can, leading to riskier behaviors like speeding or tailgating.

Normalcy Bias: This bias causes individuals to underestimate the severity of a situation, assuming that things will remain normal or routine. Drivers affected by this bias might overlook potential risks or dangers, assuming that their driving environment will remain unchanged. This is one of the most common type of biases and is often why drivers can go on the 'autopilot' mode we mentioned earlier. 'I'm only driving to the shops,' or our daily drive to work where we may not concentrate as much is a common place where normalcy biases occurs.

Confirmation Bias: Drivers may seek information that confirms their existing beliefs about their driving skills or safety precautions, ignoring or downplaying information that contradicts their perceptions. A common phrase used in this is, 'I've never been involved in an accident'. Unfortunately, not being previously involved in collision ultimately means very little as there are a huge amount of factors involved in a collision but this statement is often used by drivers with a tendency towards confirmation bias.

Looking at all of the above, do you feel like you fall into any of those categories? If so, don't panic. They are common and there are things that can be done, both from a driver's perspective and from an employers perspective.

Strategies to Align Risk Perception with Actual Risks:

Education and Awareness: From training companies to road safety organisations, you'll notice that information is king. Understanding common risks and collision statistics can help counter optimism bias. Highlighting real-life scenarios or case studies illustrates the consequences of risky behaviours can then make risks more tangible. You'll see plenty of Youtube videos regarding collisions however looking at the human factor in these you'll notice that (in the most part) these people are just leading their daily lives when a collision happens, showing real life that collisions do happen.

Feedback and Self-Assessment: Now common with insurance companies, telematics devices allow a mechanism for drivers to receive feedback on their driving performance, allowing them to self-assess their skills realistically. This helps in identifying areas where improvement is needed and reduces overconfidence bias. If you don't have one fitted, there are plenty of apps available that can do the same thing. For employers, having telematics devices for your fleet can really help identifying riskier behaviours and following up with staff on their driving can help promote a discussion around safer driving.

a conference room with someone delivering a training course

Simulations and Training: Simulated scenarios during training sessions can expose drivers to various risk situations, allowing them to experience the potential consequences of their actions without real-life danger. Many police forces and road safety organisations use a 'crash-car simulator' to highlight this and this can help in overcoming normalcy bias and improving risk perception.

Encouraging Caution and Preparedness: From the start of people learning to drive to later on in life, an emphasis on the importance of cautious driving and preparedness for unexpected situations can help encourage drivers to anticipate potential risks and have contingency plans in place to handle them.

Promoting a Safety Culture: Creating a culture that values safety and encourages open discussions about risk perception biases can help drivers become more aware of their own biases and work towards aligning their perceptions with actual risks. This is absolutely something we are trying to do our series on the psychology of driving.

We hope you're enjoying delving into the human factor of driving with us. In Part 2, we'll explore behavioural adaptation, cognitive overload and emotions. Stay tuned.


At FleetMentor, we offer a range of on-road and classroom training courses for corporate clients to make sure your drivers are safe, trained and representing your brand the way you'd expect.

If you'd like to know more about how we can help your business, our friendly team are happy to help:


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