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Risks and road rage: Why driver safety is more than just skill

By Spencer McDonald

I have conducted thousands of driving evaluations over 25 years and have run across very few really bad drivers. This raises the question of why we continue to have so many accidents on our roads and perhaps in your organization.

It can’t be just a few bad drivers causing all the problems, so it must be something else. Could it be that all of us “good drivers” are the problem?

In fact, even good drivers will sometimes take chances and make mistakes in judgement that can end up in a crash.

So, what could cause a good driver to become involved in an at-fault accident or property damage incident?

To answer this question, it’s important to remember that good driving is a combination of skills, knowledge and attitudes.

We need skills to safely and competently operate a motor vehicle, knowledge of the rules and regulations, and a positive attitude.

For decades, driver safety programs have identified these elements as the key to accident reduction and done a good job of refreshing knowledge in a classroom or online course and polished skills with behind-the-wheel training. Having a good attitude is also stressed. But what is a good attitude? What are attitudes in the first place?

We know a bad attitude when we see one but to successfully make meaningful changes to driver behaviour, we need to help drivers understand, recognize and change their attitudes.

Attitudes are a mixture of belief systems and values that determine how we experience the world and how we respond to things in our lives, like driving. It is our attitude that determines how we will use our skills and knowledge when confronted with a driving challenge. 

Pre-conceived notions about other drivers based on age, gender or ethnicity, and expectations about their behaviour can create attitudes of intolerance and frustration where cooperation and patience may yield more positive results.

Failure to accept our powerlessness in situations where traffic is slow or tied up can encourage aggressive driving behaviour in an attempt to get there quicker.

Our attitudes are the prime determinant of how much risk we take on the road: our risk tolerance. 

Risk tolerance is the amount of risk that we normally accept when performing a risky task like driving. What is crucial to understand is that our tolerance for risk can change in a moment based on our internal state and the events around us.

Our emotional state is one of the personal factors that can cause changes in our willingness to take risks. Stress, anger, overconfidence and fatigue are a few of these factors.

Our expectations play a huge role in the process. If we live in a world of “shoulds” — we drive with the expectation that others should drive properly or safely, respect our space and follow the rules — then we are setting ourselves up for a stressful trip.  When another driver doesn’t meet our expectations and doesn’t do what they should do, we may respond in anger and find that our willingness to take an unsafe risk escalates.

Anger at other driver’s behaviour and frustration with traffic can cause us to take chances; so can minor problems, like running late.

If you honestly ask yourself if you have ever done something downright dangerous while driving under the influence of stress or frustration, you will likely say yes.

You see, most people are good drivers, except during moments when they become angry, frustrated or otherwise influenced by factors that elevate risk tolerance.

Changing expectations is just one stress reduction technique that can make a major difference in driver attitudes and behaviour. But most driving courses fail to consider it and instead bore drivers with reviews of rules that most already know and, for the most part, follow.

When we live in a world of “is” instead of “should,” we drive with the expectation that there will be discourteous or rude drivers, and that there will be traffic tie-ups and delays. We are armed now, however with the knowledge and tools to safely and responsibly manage ourselves in these stressful situations. This goes a long way towards reducing risk-taking behaviour behind the wheel of the company truck or our personal vehicles.

To make changes in fleet safety, simple driver training is only part of the solution. Defensive driving course or refresher training that focuses only on driving rules and techniques misses the critical issue of personal factors and attitudes that change risk tolerance.

To be effective, driver safety training and education must focus on driver attitudes about risk and stress, and provide more meaningful and workable tools that employees can use to self-manage these states.

“He cut me off,” just doesn’t cut it as an excuse for retaliatory behaviour that results in an incident.

(Editor's note: COS welcomes Spencer McDonald, our newest online columnist. Spencer will be sharing his thoughts and experiences on the pyschology of driver safety. His column will appear on the COS website once a month.)

Spencer McDonald

Spencer McDonald is the president and founder of Thinking Driver, a driver training and development company in Surrey, B.C. Spencer’s formal education is in psychology and motivation, and has brought these fields together with road safety and education to develop attitude-based driver safety programs. Visit for more information.
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