Psychological Testing for New Drivers is Flawed

Baby Driving

[Photo by Ed from Ohio]

BBC News reports on government plans to introduce a psychometric component to the UK driving test. Under these plans, before passing the driving test in the UK, it will be compulsory to show the right psychological attitudes to road safety. It’s a nice idea that we might be able to eliminate at least some of the dangerous drivers from our roads with one simple paper and pencil test. Unfortunately from a psychological viewpoint it’s a fundamentally flawed plan.

Attitude-behaviour gap
One of the biggest problems is the well-known gap between people’s attitudes and their behaviour. Even the most honest and well-meaning among us will consciously give the ‘correct’ answers to questions that assess our levels of racism or prejudice in general. But when our unconscious selves are tested, our behaviour reveals our true prejudices. Research on implicit attitudes dramatically shows this divergence between what we think we believe and what our behaviour reveals about our beliefs.

The practical upshot of this research is simply that even someone who thinks they are a safe driver may not be.

Even more obvious than this, though, is the fact that people lie. If you ask people: “How fast should you drive down this winding, slippery road on a foggy night?” most people with more than two brain cells to rub together can work out the answer isn’t: “As fast as I bloody well can!”

In support of the scheme, the article refers to a bus company which introduced these psychological tests for bus drivers four years ago. Since then they claim to have seen fatalities involving buses reduce by 31%.

It’s a juicy but very loose association being used here. What proof is there that this reduction in fatalities wasn’t due to the introduction of new buses, changes in road layouts, numbers of people travelling on buses, or any number of other factors?

How to change driving behaviour
A further point used to support the scheme is the idea we’ll be able to identify dangerous or risky drivers and then somehow change their attitudes. Now, if you’re buying what the psychological research says about the problematic relationship between attitudes and behaviour, what does it matter if you change someone’s attitudes? Even supposing that you could?

What if – shock! horror! – the driving test is actually a really good way of testing if someone is good at, well, driving. After all if you want to see how good someone is at golf, you don’t sit them down and ask them about their attitudes to bunker shots, you take them out on the course.

Managing risks
Introducing psychological testing for drivers is just the latest manifestation of modern Westernised societies’ obsession with trying to manage risks, but without spending any money. If the government really wants to make the roads safer they’ll use the same technique employed by all reputable professions: continuing professional development. Make drivers top-up their training every few years with refresher courses and perhaps even give them complete retests every few decades.

Now just try and get that past the driving lobby.

And, before there’s an outcry about the driving baby picture, at least his hands are at ten-to-two.

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 9 June 2007

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Images: Creative Commons License