I want you to imagine two scenarios. In the first, you’ve just received an exciting piece of news. Let’s pretend you’ve been awarded a longed for promotion at work and rush home in a state of excitement to tell your family and friends.
Now let’s suppose the news wasn’t so good. Your boss has accused you of not pulling your weight and said you’re in danger of being made redundant. You feel angry and sit behind the wheel of your car fuming with frustration.
If I were to ask which scenario is most likely to result in you crashing on your homeward journey, you would probably point to the latter. After all, we tend to think that angry drivers are bad drivers and that we would prefer to share the road with happy ones.
That is certainly the assumption made by the participants in a recent exclusive survey of attitudes towards driving. The polling of 1,094 UK drivers was conducted online by YouGov on behalf of Aviva in conjunction with the Telegraph. When asked about the interplay between emotions and driving, 80 per cent said that they thought a driver’s emotional state would have an impact on their performance behind the wheel.
As I would expect, two-thirds of these people pointed to anger as the emotion with the worst influence on driver safety. A further 19 per cent identified stress, and four per cent said nervousness or fear and apprehension would have a negative impact.
Strikingly, only a handful said that feeling happy would affect a person’s driving. So the widespread belief among UK motorists seems to be that negative emotions lead to poor driving, while positive ones have a benign influence.
However, this assumption might not be accurate. Recent research into human factors in road safety, in which I am involved through my role at the University of Leeds, suggests that positive emotional states could be just as detrimental to a driver’s performance as negative ones.
We can all play a part in making the roads saferIn fact, what matters from a road safety point of view is less the emotion itself than how we unconsciously respond to it. So the really important issue is the impact emotional states have on things such as our ability to perceive hazards or the frequency and direction of our eye movements.
To return to the scenarios I mapped at the beginning, the chances of your being distracted are similar in each case. Whether you’re steaming with rage at your unjust boss or floating on air at the thought of your imminent salary rise, there is a possibility that you won’t be paying the road as much attention as you ought.
But there’s more at stake even than this. Your emotional state may also prompt your body to allocate energy in certain ways, which could impair your performance as a driver.
As a general rule, our bodies like to exist in a state of equilibrium, neither too excited nor not excited enough. Our default mode is one of moderate stimulation – enough to be attentive to our surroundings but not so much that we can’t focus.
When we veer away from neutral, our bodies put energy into restoring balance. So as well as a state of high excitement making us more easily distracted, in these circumstances we will also unconsciously divert energy away from focusing on the road and towards getting back on an even keel.
We tend to think that angry drivers are bad drivers and that we would prefer to share the road with happy onesLikewise, if we are not excited enough, our bodies will put energy into geeing us up, which might reduce our ability to spot hazards or respond to danger. The drivers in this survey are partially right, therefore. Emotions are important in driver safety but they are not the be-all and end-all, and anger is by no means the only emotion to result in bad driving.
Whatever we’re feeling, the point that really matters is how our bodies respond, and that is not necessarily linked to the character of our emotions.
Whether you jump in the car feeling on top of the world or in the depths of despair, you may be just as likely to drive badly. This is a useful piece of self-knowledge, because it can help you to take stock as you turn the ignition key, and ensure that you stay as focused as possible before hitting the road.
Ultimately, that’s the value of surveys such as the one conducted by the Telegraph, Aviva and YouGov. They help uncover driver attitudes. Then they provide an opportunity to enhance awareness among motorists by exploring the interaction between what people think and how research suggests the world really is.
Armed with that understanding, we can all play a part in making the roads safer.