Optimism Bias: Why does it make our roads so dangerous?

By Srinivas Krishnan | on August 6, 2022

You may think that you’re a better driver than most. But so does everyone else. Why, then, are our roads so dangerous? Say hello to ‘Optimism Bias.’

Optimism is generally good. It has kept mankind evolving and is perhaps the single most important factor for humanity to progress. However, as our grandmas used to say, too much of a good thing can be bad. There’s no better proof of that than our road habits. Intriguing, right?

Ask yourself, ask your buddies, ask your extended social media network this question: Do you consider yourself a better-than-average driver/rider? Chances are that a solid majority of the responses will be in the affirmative (especially from men). Well, how can 80 per cent be average? If all of us are above-average in driving or riding skills, then why the hell is India the road fatality capital of the world? While there are many answers to that question, I believe one of them is this wrong assessment of our capabilities.

This sense of overestimation of our own abilities is a universal trait. It comes from a type of cognitive bias known as Optimism Bias. And what is that? It’s our tendency to believe that we will experience more positive things in life than others and underestimate the likelihood of something negative happening to us. For example: We will make a killing on the stock exchange. We will land that coveted job. We will not contract cancer, even if we are heavy smokers. We will not have a car crash… Why not?

There have been studies on this bias when it comes to driving habits. A study conducted in 1989 said that people were ‘excessively and unrealistically optimistic when it came to judging their driving competency and accident risk.’ In other words, we overestimate our driving skills and, since we think we are in control, believe that we won’t be involved in a road incident. And if you are an experienced, regular driver who has generally not had an incident (highly unlikely in India) that does not mean it’s not going to happen to you. But it happens, right… RIGHT?

When it comes to all this brain-related stuff, I immediately dial Biju Dominic – chairman, FinalMile Consulting and a behavioural architect – who has had a presence in this column before (I recommend reading his fortnightly columns in Mint). He says, ‘It’s a fact that workers in a factory who are more experienced, tend to have more accidents than newbies or trainees. Similarly, those who cross railway lines three to four times a day are more likely to have an incident than those who are new to it. So the more you interact with the risk, the feeling of risk comes down.’

We must come to terms with the fact that driving, especially in India, is risky. While that should not paralyse us and make us stay home, acknowledging our Optimism Bias and driving with a sense of understanding of what risky behaviour is will help tremendously. Yes, but how? If you see a clever road safety campaign but you think it’s meant for below-average drivers and does not apply to you, then that message is wasted. What is the solution then? I ask Biju, of course.

‘On straight roads, you tend to over speed. But on mountain roads, you are more cautious – because your perception of risk is higher. Learning from that, what we need to do is to add “injections of fear” at black spots and crash zones to make drivers more cautious and lower the overconfidence at the point of action. The emotion of fear needs to be used at the point of action – not far away.’ He adds, ‘I dare say that the emotion of fear has saved more lives than modern medicine.’

That apart, I believe we can kill this unreasonable optimism bias by incorporating cautionary behaviour right at the driving lesson stage to catch them young. Especially by highlighting the negative effects of distracted driving, not strapping up, not wearing a helmet, over-speeding, etc. As for all of us more experienced, ‘above-average’ drivers, I think if we incorporate more caution than what we perceive is necessary, we can avoid road crashes. 

On a personal note, I drive as if the people in the vehicles around me are not strangers, but my loved ones. That generally adds a level of caution to my driving behaviour. Try it and do let me know if it works for you. Or if you have any other idea to dial down the Optimism Bias or how it can be incorporated into our country’s road safety policies, do write in. Drive/ride safe.

Read more:

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Tags: Srinivas Krishnan Expert Auto Opinion

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