4 MIN READ | Social Psychology

Professor Nigel MacLennan

Road Safety: Psychological Principles That Can Help You to Stay Alive on the Roads

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Professor Nigel MacLennan, (2021, November 15). Road Safety: Psychological Principles That Can Help You to Stay Alive on the Roads. Psychreg on Social Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/road-safety-psychological-principles/
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Here are some frightful figures: 1 in every 240 lives will be ended in a car accident; 1 in every 1,140 lives will be ended as a pedestrian; and 1 in every 5,103 lives will be ended as a cyclist. The roads are dangerous places. Tonnes of metal are travelling at speeds ranging from 20mph on narrow residential streets, through to 70mph on motorways where many HGVs weighing 44,000kg travel at 60mph. Even a stand-up electric scooter can kill. 

In road accidents it is not always the person who makes the mistake who pays with their lives. We can try to avoid being a passive victim of the error of others. While some risks are unavoidable, most we can do something about; there is no need to be fatalistic. As Stephen Hawking aptly puts it: ‘I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.’

What is the best way to ensure your road safety? In two words: awareness and alertness. To be more specific: situational awareness. If you are aware of what is going on around you on the roads, aware of your road situation, and you use the roads in ways that minimise the risks, your survival chances go up. 

Speed kills. Everyone knows that going too fast for the conditions can and does kill. Responsible road users know that they and everyone else on the road can make mistakes. We can all misjudge the movements or intentions of another road user. If you make this assumption you are prepared for most scenarios: assume every other road user is about to make the mistake that could take you out. 

Make progress only as far as you can see. If you can’t see around a corner, assume something is there. If you can’t see over a blind summit, assume something is there. 

If you assume there is a fatal risk, and you are wrong in that assumption, you are still alive to celebrate your caution, that is preferable to the opposite: you assume there is no risk, and proceed on that basis – and lights out.

Talking of lights, using the roads and not taking account of the visibility is, frankly, howling mad. Darkness, rain, mist, fog, sun low in the sky and in the eyes of some road users and not others, are just some of the visibility risks. If the sun is low in the sky and behind you, but in the eyes of another road user, you may be seeing them, and they may not be able to see you, or not be able to process what you are doing. 

There is a key principle of road safety. Mentally put yourself in the other road user’s position. Ask yourself : what could impair their perceptions? 

Perceptions can be impaired by time pressure. Someone is late for a meeting. Their attention is more on making fast progress, and less on safe progress. Their ability to process and respond to risk is impaired. Something they would never normally do on the roads, they try, and get away with. That makes them more likely to do it again, and before long the risk taker is a death maker.  

Judgement can be impaired in many ways: alcohol and drugs are known to be unwise road companions. 

Most people don’t know that distraction is just as dangerous. We have all seen the person wearing earbuds or headphones stepping out in front of traffic. Fortunately for most who have done that, other experienced road users can see it coming: they are looking to see if others are looking to see. 

Those ‘lost in music‘ don’t look around them as they cross the road; their situational awareness is absent; their mind is elsewhere. Those who are situationally aware prevent yet another fatality. Your situational awareness can save lives. 

Almost all RTA’s (Road Traffic Accidents) are caused by driver error, 95% according to RoSPA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents). 

Errors are more likely if someone is ill or tired or too hungry to maintain alertness, or in caffeine withdrawal or overdose. Too much caffeine impairs judgement. Withdrawal from caffeine causes sleepiness. Even dehydration can cause accidents by way of impaired judgment. 

You have heard of drunk driving. Distressed driving is also dangerous; strong emotions impair judgment. If you are emotionally upset, it is best to stay off the roads until you are feeling better. 

Rain is a major threat to road safety, or at least that is how it appears. Everyone knows that rain both impedes visibility and grip on the road surface. Safe road users adapt their behaviour according to the conditions. That means that the increased rate of accidents when it is raining, is mostly down to road users not adapting to the conditions. If grip and visibility are down, slow down. Allow more distance. Expect others to make more errors and anticipate those errors.

From the information above, I hope it is clear that improving our road safety is primarily an activity of our minds, and specifically, is about what we choose to focus on, and how we process what we focus on. We started the article with the emphasis on two words: awareness and alertness. Road safety is about anticipating risks and acting to remove or reduce those risks. Now we have four As to help us remember the factors in road safety:

  • Awareness
  • Alertness
  • Anticipation 
  • Action

To stay safe on the road, decide that when on the road, that safety is your top priority. Train yourself to make safety your primary goal, and commit to do something about any factor that impairs your safety. Road safety is mostly in the mind. Keep the 4 As in mind.

Road Safety Week

The campaign runs from 15th–21st November 2021, and aims to inspire thousands of schools, organisations and communities to take action on road safety and to promote life-saving messages.


Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the leadership coaching practice PsyPerform and is a visiting professor at the University of Bolton.

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