Smooth sail­ing – un­til it’s not

If you can get away with it, there’s a sense of re­ward in speed­ing, psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor says

The Amherst News - - FEATURE - BY HARRY SUL­LI­VAN

‘I mean, there is the odd one that will prob­a­bly deny any­thing they ever did wrong’ – Truro Po­lice Const. James Browne

It’s risk ver­sus re­ward, and sce­nar­ios like this one play out on our high­ways time af­ter time. Jan. 2, 2018. First day back to work af­ter the New Year’s hol­i­day and the mo­torist, run­ning late, was in a hurry…

The ru­ral road was slightly slick with snow but the driver gave lit­tle thought to the fact he was driv­ing faster than con­di­tions rea­son­ably al­low. Round­ing a bend, he came upon a slower driver and, un­able to im­me­di­ately pass for sev­eral “long” kilo­me­tres, his im­pa­tience and frus­tra­tion be­gan to grow.

“Fi­nally,” he thought, when a clear stretch of road en­abled him to go by the other driver. And, with that, his leaden foot pushed down even harder on the gas pedal.

A short dis­tance down the road, how­ever, the driver’s joy was short­lived as he came around an­other cor­ner and saw an on­com­ing car sud­denly pull off to the side of the road. And then, on came the flash­ing red and blues.

“Oh great,” he thought, “just what I need. A speed­ing ticket.”

“Why do peo­ple speed? That’s a pretty easy an­swer, man,” said Scott Geller, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Vir­ginia Polytech­nic In­sti­tute and State Uni­ver­sity in the United States.

“Peo­ple speed be­cause they’ve got places to go. It’s about con­se­quences and they usu­ally get there safely,” he said. “So, in fact, speed­ing is re­warded. In behavioural sci­ence terms, we would say it is enforced. I get re-enforced for speed­ing be­cause I get to my desti­na­tion faster and noth­ing hap­pened. So, I’ll do it again.”

Geller, 76, is in his 50th year of teach­ing at the uni­ver­sity. He spe­cial­izes in ap­plied behavioural sci­ence and one of his ar­eas of spe­cialty deals with al­co­hol-im­paired driv­ing, driver safety train­ing and other driv­ing behaviours.

Al­though the re­ward for speed­ing in many in­stances may mean a dif­fer­ence of only a few min­utes, “to us, it feels like, ‘wow, it worked,’” he said. “We have a busy so­ci­ety these days, don’t we? We have a busy life. Ev­ery­body’s got places to go.”

The sense of com­fort from get­ting away with speed­ing that one time can also build com­pla­cency, which can lead to fur­ther in­ci­dences of speed­ing. Route fa­mil­iar­ity can also play a role.

And fur­ther com­pound­ing the is­sue is the fact many of to­day’s au­to­mo­biles have in­creased horse­power and han­dling ef­fi­cien­cies, which makes it eas­ier to safely speed along the high­way or ma­noeu­vre through curves at speeds higher than the posted limit.

“So they learn from ex­pe­ri­ence that they don’t have to go that slow,” Geller said.

Derek Koehler, a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Water­loo in On­tario, agrees the will to speed is de­rived, at least in part, from the risk-ver­sus-re­ward con­cept.

“At a ba­sic level, we can say that some­one who is speed­ing has de­cided that the ben­e­fits out­weigh the costs or the risks,” he said.

But he sug­gested such de­ci­sions are more or less made at a sub­con­scious level.

“We’re in a hurry to get some­where, we go a lit­tle bit over the speed limit and what’s the harm in do­ing that? It doesn’t even feel risky,” he said. “You’re not re­ally mak­ing a con­scious de­ci­sion to speed, you just feel hur­ried, just in terms of an emo­tional ba­sis.”

But from a psy­cho­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, Koehler ques­tions whether a driver’s per­cep­tion of such risks and ben­e­fits are re­ally ac­cu­rate. In other words, driv­ers who speed are ac­tu­ally un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the risk and over­es­ti­mat­ing the ben­e­fit, which, in essence, is a mis­take.

If you speed on your way to work, for ex­am­ple, you may ar­rive a few min­utes ear­lier than you oth­er­wise might have. But that doesn’t mean you are al­ways go­ing to get away with it.

As with the driver at the be­gin­ning of the story, the risk far out­weighed any ben­e­fits he could have de­rived, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the down­time at the side of the road while the of­fi­cer writes up his speed­ing ticket and the sub­se­quent hun­dreds of dol­lars in fines paid to the court.

And, of course, the greater the speed, the greater the penalty, in­clud­ing the po­ten­tial loss of li­cence and the priv­i­lege to drive en­tirely.

But above all else, Geller said, is the dan­ger speed­ers pose to them­selves and other mo­torists.

“I think we re­ally need to take a step back and be­come sys­tems thinkers,” Geller said. “We just need to ac­tively care for peo­ple.”

Af­ter do­ing street pa­trol on and off for more than a decade with the Truro Po­lice Ser­vice, Const. James Browne has en­coun­tered more than his fair share of speed­ing driv­ers.

And, in most cases, the driv­ers knew they were driv­ing too fast and don’t bother ar­gu­ing about it.

“The ma­jor­ity are pretty ac­cept­ing of the con­se­quences and know what they did, ba­si­cally,” Browne said.

But out of the ap­prox­i­mately 40 driv­ers he stops in a given week, there will be two or three who try to deny it or ar­gue they should be given a warn­ing.

“I mean, there is the odd one that will prob­a­bly deny any­thing they ever did wrong,” he said. “Usu­ally the ones that are in de­nial or think they should get a warn­ing, they can es­ca­late pretty quick.”

In such cases, Brown tries not to en­gage in the ar­gu­ment and re­minds the driv­ers they can take their case to court.

“There’s a process and some­times they’re sat­is­fied with that,” he said.

In sit­u­a­tions where a speed­ing mo­torist says they are deal­ing with a med­i­cal or fam­ily emer­gency, Brown said he ac­knowl­edges that while they have to get to where they are go­ing as fast as pos­si­ble, they also must do so safely.

And then there are the cases of mo­torists who are us­ing their cell phones while also driv­ing too fast.

“You are ex­ceed­ing the posted speed limit and you are not even pay­ing at­ten­tion, ba­si­cally,” he said.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, Browne will en­counter driv­ers who take their speed­ing to the ex­treme, in­clud­ing a re­cent mo­torist he clocked at more than 140 km/h in a 50-km/h zone.

“But ob­vi­ously I wasn’t able to stop them,” he said. “I made an at­tempt, but that was about it. Too dan­ger­ous, not worth it re­ally.”

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