Glowing sign on top of a taxi
If seat belt law changed in this country would you still wear one knowing the harm you could come to if you had a crash without it? Warning beepers in our cars suggest we might not be that bothered. Some people say seat belts are a habit but how long would this last if it wasn’t reinforced?

One hopes such deep rooted habits and unconscious behaviour would stick with us forever. Many of my safe driving behaviours where drummed in during my early driving years by my Dad, like checking your blind spot before you pull out. That’s saved me a few times when I’ve been distracted on the motorway yet automatically checked over my right shoulder just in time to see the large white van I was about to pull out in front of.

Some things stay with us because they benefit our survival, so we’ll always follow them no matter what. But not all things are that deeply ingrained – here we have a choice to make without punitive consequences, and funnily enough we don’t always make the most obvious and safest one!

Let’s continue our seat belt wearing example. In the UK there’s this strange omission of compulsory seat belt laws when it comes to taxi drivers in certain circumstances. When pushed they’ll say it’s for convenience or so they can’t be checked from behind with the belt. All of which I find incredibly difficult to accept as they’re in as much danger from other road users as we are yet I’m supposed to wear one in the back!

I always ask these taxi drivers what happens in an accident. Are you superhuman enough to not need protection in a car like the rest of us? They usually laugh and turn up the radio at this point, thinking I’ve lost my marbles. I met one taxi driver in Aberdeen who said “if you want me to wear my belt I will” so I thanked him for sparing me the vision of him shooting over the bonnet if he got rear-ended. I also thanked him on behalf of his wife and kids who got to see him again that evening. This shocked him into at least discussing it more openly as he pulled his seat belt back on.

This problem’s even more prevalent in other countries. I travelled to Spain for JOMC before Christmas and each time used the same taxi driver on the hour-long trip from the airport. As we drove away she put on her seat belt, much to my amazement as taxi drivers on the whole (in JOMC’s experience) seldom bother (see articles like this by Steve Beswick).  I asked if this was the law in Spain and she nodded and we drove off along the major highway. Just fifty kilometres later we arrived in the outskirts of Cadiz and she pinged off her seat belt with a swift click of the button then turned to me to say “it’s not law here in the city for taxi drivers, it’s up to you if you wear it or not”.

In my efforts to explore her attitude and behaviour I explained that that she was far more likely to be involved in an accident in the city. She shook her head and looked at me like I was suggesting she wasn’t a good enough driver to avoid a crash. The conversation went from bad to worse as I tried to clarify things. She shrugged and said:

“You can’t help other people’s driving. If they hit me it’s their fault… If the police think you aren’t safe in the city without a seat belt they would change the rules.”

This highlights how some people interpret rules and regulations. She was comfortable reverting to less safe driving behaviours because she felt that higher powers wouldn’t allow it if it wasn’t OK.

We all have different risk appetites that drive us to be more or less conscious of risk in a variety of areas. If we have a high risk appetite it means we take more risks than others but it doesn’t have to mean we’re less safe. It all comes down to training and experience to ensure all consequences are considered and prepared for (see anything by Nick Wharton on climbing).

Another factor that drives us to take risks is how confidently we feel about what we’re doing. When something’s unfamiliar we look for direction from others and the training we’ve had. But once we’re proficient and feel more confident then our inner risk appetite takes over and we choose not to think about harmful consequences. Our desire is to get on with the job, habitually, often on auto-pilot.

I’ve written before about the dangers of being on auto-pilot and complacency towards risk in our daily tasks. So to combat this our training must ensure that the ‘auto-pilot working method’ has all the safety checks programmed in. Yet this isn’t always how training is framed, instead actions to complete the task are highlighted prominently and the safety stages are added in afterwards.

To encourage staff to respect and handle risk more actively, you must make safety an integral part of any process, whether it’s driving, climbing or any other task – all activities involve risk. Actions and safety must be taught together in the same training session with regular reminders of the consequences no matter how obvious they may be.