Psychology / Transportation Safety

Dangers of driving on autopilot

Snap out of it — develop your situational awareness

October 2, 2013
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This morning I was a lone worker. I drove my vehicle into work and did so alone with just my favorite blues station on the radio. I had to be responsible for my own safety. No one was there to alert me to risks (as my son is so prone to do now) or help me think through the process of navigating hazards. Alternatively, no one was there to distract me from performing the driving task safely. In the end, I got to my office safely. But I cannot tell you the actions I took to arrive safely. I was on a type of autopilot.

My autopilot includes a set of behaviors such as using my safety belt, hugging the blind turns that are abundant in the mountains, maintaining a safe speed for the situation, and stopping when appropriate. Thinking back, I honestly couldn’t tell you if I indeed did those things, but I assume I did.

I can tell you that my mind was considering my to-do list, my son’s enjoyment of college, and an upcoming trip to Salt Lake. I was not consciously thinking about the safety of my driving.

Adrenalin-aided focus

I can attest to times that I’ve been driving, relying on my autopilot and thinking of something else, when my attention was suddenly activated, automatically and with split second timing, to a hazard on my drive. An adrenalin-aided focus brings me to the right-here, right-now. 

Thank goodness for that little fact of human neurology where sensory information is passed through the reactive parts of your brain before hitting the cortex where you become conscious of the situation. This allows us that split second head start that can make all the difference: It’s like you react first then become aware what you’re reacting to, you didn’t have to wait on the brain.

Autopilot is a nice little nuance of cognitive processing that allows us animals, especially humans, to plan, solve problems, or otherwise daydream while performing routine tasks. And it seems to know when to turn off so we can avoid hazards. But when it comes to safety, autopilot can also be dangerous.

The biggest risk exposure

I was told by an insurance company manager that their single biggest exposure to injury is their agents’ driving; and that’s not the first time I heard that fact. Indeed, driving is one of the most dangerous activities in the work world.  

On one hand, we drive so much for personal reasons that we gain extensive experience that helps us become more fluent and aware when new hazards come our way. Indeed, research shows that one reason youth take more risks while driving than adults is because they just don’t have the experience to know when the situation is more hazardous and when their risks are more likely to result in a collision. 

Our experience driving, however, shapes an autopilot that usually does not translate well to driving on the job. The autopilot developed when driving for personal reasons is executed with a familiar vehicle in familiar surroundings. 

Change of scenery

I live in the rural mountains and recently took a trip to the city on business. I was on my autopilot and suddenly found myself running right through a red light in the middle of the city. I wasn’t used to so many intersections. 

When we drive as part of our work we may be doing so in unfamiliar vehicles in unfamiliar surroundings. Reverting back to our personal autopilots can result in unconscious risks. 

Also, we have all been shaped to take risks because our personal autopilots work so well. On familiar routes we can go so much into autopilot that we choose to eat, look at paperwork, or even text on our phones. When we take these personal autopilot risks to our work driving, the increase of collision rises significantly. 

Building a new autopilot

In behavioral science we prefer using the term “fluency” to describe a type of autopilot that results in no errors.

Here are some steps that help build the new autopilot with the goals of supporting safe behaviors and situational awareness:

 Identify the specific step-by-step behavioral process to be learned with a focus on safety behaviors. 

 Identify where people tend to vary in this process and determine why. These areas of variance tend to lead to errors and risks.

 Focus training on these areas under the very circumstances that cause the variance.

 Have the trainee practice the behavior under these circumstances. Build a new level of situational awareness during practice by having trainees frequently identify novelties and potential hazards.

 Continue the practice until variance no longer occurs thereby establishing fluency.

Variables in driving patterns

Consider the driver making sales or service calls who travels in traffic while having to find and follow directions. Variance occurs when they get near their destination and then begin to engage their smart phone for direction help and look for location signage instead of remaining aware of other vehicles, traffic patterns, and road signs. Understand why this happens. Determine an alternative behavioral fix. 

For example, they could be trained to set destinations on their smart phones before starting the vehicle and pulling over to park when the directions get complicated or need resetting. Train this behavioral process until fluency demonstrated during ride-alongs or simulations. 

For the industrial driver in a non-traditional vehicle the variables may be much different. I’ve been all around the world interacting with drivers in haul trucks carrying 200 tons of ore, or driving work crews in buses on makeshift roads, or transporting hazardous materials on back roads to service remote sites; you name it, they’ve driven it. The fact is, each of these types of driving offer their own variables that must be understood and trained for. But in each case there is a situational awareness factor that is paramount in their performance. 

Training can expose drivers to videos of different situations and have them identify the hazards which can be reinforced during ride-along sessions until the driver can demonstrate situational awareness fluently.

Don’t take it for granted

Even when we shape up fluent autopilots with the necessary situational awareness we don’t want to perform on autopilot all the time. This brings us to the final step of fluency training: Prompt the employee to conduct self-observations periodically while engaged in the task. These observations should result in a list of safe behaviors, at-risk behaviors, and hazards identified during a ten-minute continuous section of time.

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