This week across the UK, people are being inspired to take action for Road Safety Week. Mike Bridge asks if the theories behind creating culture change can help us all be better drivers…

Driving Safety: What’s your theory, how’s your practice?

This week is Road Safety Week, inspiring people across the UK to take action on road safety (not that we should wait for a special week to reflect on this subject).

Our roads are a showcase for safety behaviours and cultures. In our safety workshops, with clients, the experiences of road users are usually rich with examples of many of the key principles that illustrate ideas that are core to developing strong safety cultures. So, how can we apply the theories and principles behind culture change, to the context of changing driving habits?

The Theory of Planned Behaviour (Icek Ajzen) is useful when considering road safety behaviour. This theory explores how our beliefs influence our behaviour. Our belief in our abilities, our belief in what the likely outcome will be (consequence) and our belief in how our behaviour will fit into the prevailing ‘norm’.

Consider the example of speeding on the motorway – what are your thoughts if everyone else seems to be frequently driving faster than 70mph?

If the ‘belief’ is that this is the norm, how does this influence driving behaviour?

Another theory that is interesting to consider, in the context of driving, is the ‘Power of Habit’ (Charles Duhigg); the idea that the things we do on a daily basis are often no longer a result of deliberate thought but more ‘habits’ that have developed over time. Most of these, such as the skills we use when driving, are done unconsciously on ‘auto pilot’.

In the UK, the UK driving licence is generally trained for once, and then granted almost for life.

Our driving ‘habits’ then build up over time.  How often are these habits reviewed of challenged? Indeed as no one can concentrate all the time, there are plenty of other road users not being mindful and operating on auto pilot, with an associated mix of good and bad habits.

The challenge of being made aware of our habits, both positive and negative, is interesting. Think about how a conversation goes with a close friend or partner when you are the driver and they point something out about your driving.

Do you take offence or get irritated by this ‘back seat driving’ or value the safety opportunity?

This is where the skills and understanding of the engagement needed to have a positive safety conversation become key.

The ideas behind ‘Fresh eyes’, ‘Mindfulness’ and ‘Self review’ are also helpful. It is estimated that around a third of road deaths are work related, and research shows that perception of time pressure is the most common factor in these. Mindfulness is the psychological process of being aware of the present – living in the ‘here and now’. This is something that can help us assess our own driving skills – are our habits safe … really? What about when we are late, or under pressure? Should we pause and listen to our internal, own ‘back seat driver’?

What do we do well?

We can also apply these ideas to looking at our good driving habits. The ideas of Safety 2 (Erik Hollnagel) expand the safety focus beyond just looking at what goes wrong, to include what goes right and put more consideration into improving our normal performance in frequent events.

The facts are there were 1,770 road deaths last year and many many thousands of serious injuries. Despite these unacceptable accidents over time, safety has improved, even with increasing numbers of vehicles on the road.

In the last 10 years, there has been a decline in the number of people killed on Britain’s roads, with around 40% fewer fatalities than a decade ago.

The same period saw around a 10% increase in the number of vehicles. There are also fewer road deaths per head of the population in Britain than in almost any other country in the world.

So, quite rightly,  there is still more work to be done.  What can we learn by looking at what we are doing right on a broader scale?  Consider how we tackle things like cultures around mobile phone, drink-driving and speeding?

Considering our own driving, we could ask; “What are the triggers that set off my best driving behaviours? How does this, in turn, affect other road users? What are the things I have done to stay safe, and help others stay safe?”

A chance for reflection

Road Safety Week is a chance for us to reflect on some of the positive things we can do to make a difference in looking out for ourselves, and others, and being mindful of what the triggers behind our driving behaviours (both good and bad) are.

When discussing the purpose of driving, a young driver said to me “It’s safety. Staying safe and keeping everyone else safe.” What a great thought.   It’s worth remembering just  how key a focus on positive reinforcement is, to building better habits and behaviours when you reflect on your own and others’ driving.

Road Safety Week is the UK’s biggest road safety event, coordinated annually by Brake, the road safety charity. Road Safety Week aims to inspire thousands of schools, organisations and communities to take action on road safety and promote life-saving messages during the Week and beyond. It also provides a focal point for professionals working in road safety to boost awareness and engagement in their work.