Bridging the behaviour gaps on our roads


Are we failing to keep up with a fast-paced, ever changing world with disjointed, unrealistic expectations of human behaviour? The rate of progression and innovation has never been greater. With that comes education gaps in how things work, what’s expected of us, and what our behaviours should be to live in safety and harmony as members of society.

While innovation attempts to improve our lives, it can come with frustrations and risks. With great new options at our fingertips can also come distraction, annoyance and impatience. With the roads filled with driver assist technologies, and automated vehicle technology looming, it is a melting pot for driver behaviour. We are at a dangerous crossroad of handing control of the driving task to the vehicle rather than being in control ourselves. The evidence base for distracted driving has failed to keep up with technological developments, according to Future of Transport Head of Impairment Research, Dr Paul Jackson, and Head of Behavioural Science, Dr Neale Kinnear. I couldn’t agree more.

Operating on auto-pilot

As we move towards higher levels of autonomy in vehicles, there are too many assumptions about the fidelity and safety of autonomous features without education and experience in operating these vehicles. We’ve all heard the story of the driver who switched on cruise control in their motor home and went and made a cup of coffee. Yes, it drove off the road. Okay, so slightly humorous in retrospect and a little stupid perhaps, but this kind of ‘auto-pilot’ driving, in this day and age, can mean literally that. Learning a new app on our phones is very different to learning our vehicle’s operating features as the complexity of driving and the potential risks still remain.

Re:act is a student road safety initiative of our agency in collaboration with universities. The Re:act topic for last year was safety around trucks. As the students (who clearly hadn’t thought much about this topic in their daily lives) reported, there is only one question in the learner’s handbook on this topic and a 6% chance of being tested on it. According to Ben Maguire, CEO of the Australian Trucking Association, the freight task in Australia will increase by 52% by 2036. There is also billions of dollars worth of transport infrastructure occurring over the next decade. The Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel build alone will add a truck and trailer to Melbourne’s CBD traffic every 3 minutes for 5½ years. Are we preparing our youth, the future on the roads, to be equipped for it?

A tribal or sharing mindset?

In recent years, I have noticed how complex it is to instil a “shared systems” mindset on our roads. We are all a pedestrian, often a driver, and sometimes a cyclist. As we move from one to another, an understanding of the other is often quickly forgotten and our behaviours as a driver do not fit that of the cyclist we were just moments ago. Road user groups can be tribal and when we shift modes so does our focus and allegiance. Just recently, researchers at three Australian universities examined traffic psychology and behaviour and found that around half of non-cyclists viewed cyclists as “less than fully human”, with some admitting to purposely having driven close to cyclists. Scary isn’t it? We conducted research last year with focus groups of young people who viewed truck drivers on the road as tough and scary, but when the context is changed to a social setting such as a barbecue, they are perceived very differently: as friendly, down-to-earth blokes.

So many things contribute to this thinking. While road safety education is about respect and sharing the road, what we observe from our parents, friends, and others on the roads is of great influence. Then there’s us. We have so much going on in our lives today. We must be at point B as fast as possible, not allowing that extra car to merge, being first off at the lights, and taking risks for no gain other than some ill-founded sense of progression inside. We must always be contactable and in communication with others. Our personal bubble is more pronounced than ever.

A melting pot

While I have raised two separate points in this article – innovation and education, and perceptions and shared systems – it has been to highlight that, more than ever, our roads are a melting pot of innovation, education gaps, and a tribal mentality. When you consider them all, it becomes apparent how mammoth a task instilling a shared responsibility on our roads is. There are many passionate road safety professionals doing their bit to make us safer but, at the end of the day, it’s up to us as individuals. We all have a role to play.

With this year’s Re:act topic focusing on defining a simple “shared system” message to vulnerable road users and drivers, I hope our youth can help unravel the mystery of making that message stick when behind the wheel, on a bike, or crossing the road, to help make our roads safer. Their increased awareness will have a ripple effect among their own personal networks, which is one small step towards the greater good. As Re:act grows, I hope this ripple can grow to have a tangible impact on our challenges and behaviours on a much broader scale.

All of us at Hard Edge have been inspired to focus our future on helping brands and organisations make the world a better place through thinking and creative that shifts behaviour and positively impacts society.

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