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Expectation Vs Reality: Optimism Bias in Drivers

2 minute read

You are asked to complete a questionnaire, on it are two questions…

If you answered 1) better than average and 2) low… you, like 80% of the global population just exhibited optimism bias.


What is Optimism Bias?

Optimism bias refers to the tendency to overestimate the likelihood that we will experience positive events in life compared with others. It often causes us to believe we are more skilled than our peers and underestimate the chances of negative events occurring to us, such as getting a divorce, catching COVID or being in a car crash.


History Of Optimism Bias & Driving

In 1989 a study on driver bias revealed that people were “excessively and unrealistically optimistic when it came to judging their driving competency and accident risk”. Similar research eight years later looked at the bias in professional taxi drivers, most of whom reported that they considered themselves more competent in their driving skills when compared to peers.

Regardless of age group, gender, cultural background and the like, results have revealed one thing: drivers often overestimate their driving skills, perceiving negative events and experiences such as crashes to be unlikely and in their control.


What Is It That Makes Us So Optimistic?

According to the science, optimism is naturally hardwired into our brains. Also referred to as the illusion of invulnerability, humans simply believe they are less likely to suffer from misfortune despite what reality or statistics may suggest.

We believe “it won’t happen to me” – until it does.

While being optimistic is not necessarily a bad thing and is what has allowed humans for centuries to pursue goals, lower-stress and increase happiness, too much of it can lead to poor decision making.

When it comes to driving this can be detrimental, especially when it results in overjudging one’s driving skills and leads to dangerous driving behaviours such as:

  • Focusing on secondary tasks when driving (eating, fiddling with the stereo or applying makeup, etc.)
  • Checking a text or using any mobile device whilst driving
  • Not wearing a seatbelt or helmet
  • Driving in dangerous conditions (through floodwaters, heavy rainfall, etc.)
  • Going over the speed limit
  • Driving intoxicated

However, with each driver having a 77% chance of being involved in at least one car accident in their life, and with more than 95% of crashes occurring due to human error, it’s more likely that we’re not as good as we think we are on the roads. With many factors (such as the driving behaviour of others) still out of our control on the roads, exhibiting more caution than you perceive as necessary is a sound policy.


Can We Decrease Our Optimism Bias?

Research has shown that reducing optimism bias is actually a difficult task, especially when it comes to trying to reduce risky behaviours from occurring.

The most common factors that tend to reduce optimism bias include comparing yourself to close loved ones and friends rather than the general population, with regard to events that one might perceive as unlikely.

Given that getting seriously injured in a car crash is something we all want to avoid, simply being aware of the effects of optimism bias on our confidence behind the wheel, may well be the first step towards getting home safely.

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