A recent study by the World Health Organisation reveals that there are now more mobile phones than people on the planet. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that mobile use is now the biggest cause of death at the wheel around the globe. In this article, Andrew Sharman explores the psychology of distraction on the road and in the workplace

recent study of in-vehicle video footage estimated that around 22 percent of crashes are caused by driver distraction. Further, drivers who perform a secondary task, such as talking or texting on a mobile phone, while at the wheel are between two and seven times more likely to crash.

Drivers using mobile phones are now around four times more likely to be in a crash that causes injury – irrespective of being on a hands-free or hand-held phone. Interestingly, their crash risk remains higher than normal for up to ten minutes after the call has ended.

In Australia, researchers at Queensland University found that drivers using mobile phones have slower reaction times, difficulty controlling speed and lane position and they brake more sharply in response to hazards, increasing the risk of rear-end crashes.

Driver reaction times are 30-percent slower while using a hands-free phone than driving with a blood alcohol level of 0,05 grams of alcohol per 100 ml of blood (the current limit in South Africa), and nearly 50-percent slower than driving under normal conditions. Drivers who text while at the wheel are 23 times more likely to crash than a driver paying full attention.

So, with data like this, why do drivers continue to use their phones while on the road?

The research suggests that many drivers believe that they are always in full control of their vehicle and believe that using phones while driving does not pose a significant risk to them.

However, scientists at the University of Utah show that drivers are not able to correctly estimate how distracted they are, and 98 percent are not able to divide their attention without a significant deterioration in driving performance.

The Power of Beliefs

Ajzen’s theory of planned behaviour (1980) has become one of the most popular in the prediction of an individual’s behaviour. The theory asserts that an individual’s actions are guided by three factors:

Behavioural beliefs are beliefs about the likely consequences of a particular behaviour, producing either a favourable or unfavourable attitude toward the behaviour.

Normative beliefs are beliefs about the expectation of others or peers. Normative beliefs are subjective and result in a perceived social peer pressure towards the behaviour.

Control beliefs relate to the perceived presence of factors that may be advantageous or disadvantageous to the performance of the behaviour. Control beliefs exert the perceived ease or difficulty of performing the behaviour.

These factors influence the overall personal intention to perform a behaviour and, in simple terms, suggest that a more favourable behavioural attitude, when coupled with supportive normative pressure from others and the feeling of being in control, will increase the likelihood of a certain behaviour being performed.

In relation to driving, Ajzen’s theory can help us to understand the antecedents (also known as “activiators”) of unsafe behaviour.

By way of example, an individual may choose to use a phone while driving because they are confident in their own ability to do two things at once (a behavioural belief), and they observe others around them using mobile devices while behind the wheel (a normative belief) and when they are behind the wheel of their own car, they feel that they have the freedom of choice to use their phone (behavioural control).

Mental Overload

It’s estimated that the human brain is exposed to up to half a million data messages and signals each and every day. Perhaps this information overload causes us to believe we need to do two things consecutively in order to simply “get things done”?

Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his work on human judgment of risk and decision-making. He’s regarded as one of the world’s leading thinkers in psychology.

Back in 1974, Kahneman and his research partner Amos Tversky made a ground-breaking discovery. They identified that the human brain was capable of taking mental short-cuts to solve problems or issues with which we are faced. A “heuristic”, to give it its proper name, is by Kahneman’s own definition: “A simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions”.

Heuristics are the little “rules of thumb” that allow us to quickly process information and conclude an adequate decision without having to digest volumes of information or deeply deliberate what our course of action should be.

It’s interesting to note that the word heuristic is derived from the same root as the word eureka. Perhaps this reflects exactly why, when our minds make these little short-cuts for us, we feel so pleased with ourselves for being so quick-thinking.

Kahneman and Tversky identified three main types of heuristics:

Availability heuristics help us to estimate the probability and likelihood of something happening – based on information we can easily recall. Studies suggest that those events we can bring to mind most quickly are those that have occurred recently.

For example, if the news reports several road accidents on a certain stretch of highway, then we may believe that we are more likely to suffer a crash on that particular road and avoid that route for the near future.

If we can recall last night’s TV news reporting of a series of fatal accidents involving people using mobile phones, perhaps our brain might be less keen to let us pull out our phone while driving.

Anchoring heuristics are based on the idea that we often take decisions related to specific reference points within our memory. These reference points act as anchors to connect historical information to the present.

  As an example, if a manager in an organisation was involved with a serious workplace accident earlier in her career, future discussion on this topic will often trigger her thought process to pull against this anchor in her mind. This may result in either a raised level of awareness and knowledge, or conversely, perhaps a degree of over-sensitivity or even a reluctance to engage.

Representativeness heuristics help us to predict the probability of something happening based on the proportion of relevant items in play.

For example, if I take a jar of coloured candies and ask you to tell me which colour of candy will be drawn next from the jar, you would no doubt want to know how many of each colour I had placed in the container. When I tell you that 75 percent of the candies were red, you would likely guess that red would be the colour of the next one to be drawn. This proportion is known as the base rate.

The representativeness heuristic is significant in our world of safety. Where a base rate appears to be in our favour, we can be lulled into a false sense of security – for example, when we experience a period of time without an accident at work, our confidence begins to grow and it becomes easy to believe that we have the ability to predict random events (accidents, or red candies) from the base rate data to hand (our chart of historical rates or the data on sweets in the jar).

Thinking fast or slow?

In his excellent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes a new heuristic – originally proposed by psychologist Paul Slovic – where individuals allow their personal preferences and biases to influence their decisions.

When the Affect heuristic kicks in, our brains respond to our most basic emotional likes and dislikes. For example, if you observe a man with a big beard and tattoos on his arms you may label him a thug, rebel, or perhaps a motorcyclist and might conclude that he is “not your cup of tea”, but the affect heuristic does not shut down your mind completely; it leaves the door open just a crack for you to change your decision. So, when you learn that the man is, in fact, an eminent doctor, who is known for saving the lives of many sick children, it becomes easy for you to modify your initial view.

Slovic and his peers have conducted several studies looking at affect, all of which confirm the bias most humans have for the physical appearance of others. In one recent study several participants were sent individually to make a sales pitch to a group of strangers. In each case where the participants were considered to be “highly attractive” and “well-groomed”, the pitch was successful and the deal closed. Those participants who appeared to have taken less care with their choice of clothes and personal grooming rarely got the sale.

Going with the gut

By their very nature, heuristics are used without our conscious thinking. The idea of a “mental shotgun” makes it easy for us to come up with fast answers to difficult situations because it avoids the need for long, deep thought. But heuristics have a flipside. They may lie behind the unconscious errors that we create as we go about our daily business and lead us into taking decisions and setting targets rather naively – whether we’re behind the wheel, operating workplace equipment, or engaged in other tasks.

Heuristics can be helpful, but we should note that they can also lead to errors. Have you ever gone with your gut, only to find you made the wrong choice? This is because heuristics are imprecise ways of judging probability. As Kahneman says, they are a “consequence of the mental shotgun; the imprecise control we have over targeting our response” to the questions or issues we face.

So how might heuristics affect our work in safety, health and quality management?

• Well, if we use last year’s accident rates as a heuristic to predict our performance this year, or five years into the future, is it a solid short-cut? What other data do we need to bring into consideration?

• When we respond to an incident based on its pull against an anchor embedded deep within our memory, is our reaction proportionate and unbiased?

• If we calculate probability based on a spate of recent events, how confident are we that we’ve got the numbers right?

• When we provide commitment and support only for safety projects proposed by attractive members of the team, are we focusing on the right risks?

About The Author

Professor Andrew Sharman is Chief Executive of RMS - consultants on leadership and cultural excellence to a wide range of blue-chip corporates and non-government organizations globally. He’s an international member of SAIOSH; Vice President of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health; and Chairman of the Institute of Leadership & Management.

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