Are Collisions by Chance or by Choice?

PoliceOutside my office window is a three-lane, divided highway with service road access. The county police constantly run a ticket sweep for people entering the service road without stopping. Two police officers can “work” two cars each on a continual basis through their shift. The county police always set up in the same, exact spot, and always mid-week. Despite their predictability, they never fail to catch a bunch of motorists (and commercial drivers, too).

People rolling through the stop sign come in two types: compliant “give me the ticket” types and ones who argue. Both consistently get tickets – arguing simply slows down the process.

This behavior (rolling through stop signs) represents a choice, whether the police are present on that day is a chance occurrence. Texting while driving represents a choice, plowing into the back of a stopped truck while texting (an unfortunate, but likely outcome) is a chance occurrence – many texters justify their choice by the fact that they haven’t been in the wrong place at the wrong time – yet.

redlight cam pictureThere are a lot of “choice not chance” behaviors in traffic safety: drinking and driving; youth drivers with a boatload of friends “egging them on” to drive like an idiot; aggressive driving – letting your emotions control your driving to the point of recklessness; driving while in-text-icated or YWD “Yakking While Driving”; speeding; tailgating; failure to use signals; passing with inadequate clearance; running “yellow-orange-red” lights at intersections, and much more.

It got me thinking about the “causes” of collisions. We know that the driver’s action, attitude, and choices are strong contributor factors in 90% (or more) of the collisions reported annually. However, I don’t think I know anyone who’d be willing to argue that drivers choose to be involved in a collision. At the same time, I don’t think they would defend the idea that collisions happen by pure chance, either.

In a manufacturing plant, we don’t have this discussion. Either the machine malfunctioned, was set up incorrectly, or the injured employee failed to follow a procedure. A much more “binary” solution – it had to be X or Y – there’s no range of possible explanations. Why is it (apparently) different on the highway?

I’ve heard a few safety managers use the phrase “it was outside the driver’s control” offered to defend the driver’s involvement in the collision. What could be outside the driver’s control? I’d be willing to consider items like: internal (invisible) defects in a tire that led to a blow out, sudden mechanical failure of an axle or steering linkage, invisible “black ice”, things happening beyond the driver’s sight line (around the corner, hidden by a view block). But we know from experience and statistics that these don’t account for too many collisions. Most are avoidable and preventable.

I think that the “outside the driver’s control” issue could be better expressed this way: the driver chose certain behaviors and chance intervened to make conditions perfect for a tragic outcome. Had conditions (chance) been different that day, the “bad” choices wouldn’t have led to a crash; therefore, it was chance’s fault, not the driver’s.

A colleague sent me a link to this video The message offered by the police officer is that the drunk driver made a choice to get in her car and drive while impaired. The collision that killed the officer’s mother wasn’t a chance occurrence – it was completely preventable because the collision was from a choice that had been made earlier in the evening.

Traffic safety is EVERY driver’s responsibility. A wise person would choose to learn from past mistakes and improve their performance after receiving coaching from an advisor (we reduce the chance of a collision by choosing to drive correctly).

We need to be held responsible for our own choices, and we need to learn to make better choices regardless of how “lucky” we’ve been in the past.


5 thoughts on “Are Collisions by Chance or by Choice?

  1. Paul:

    Nicely written. I did watch the video too. That must really hit home for you in more ways than I can imagine.

    With your permission, I might like to include a link to this piece in our October 1st TVe-News.

    Have a nice holiday weekend.

    Tom Flaten

    • Tom, thanks for the kind comments. I’d be flattered if you included a link in your TVe-News. Yes, the video did hit me pretty hard — although my mom wasn’t killed by a “drunk driver”, it was difficult to deal with on the day after Christmas.

  2. Paul, on the whole I agree with your article but in one paragraph you wrote, in relation to things “being outside a driver’s control”:
    “I’d be willing to consider items like… invisible ‘black ice’, things happening beyond the driver’s sight line (around the corner, hidden by a view block)…”

    Yet all of the things listed above most certainly SHOULD be within a driver’s control. That is the whole essence of good, truly safe driving. Anything else amounts to either a lack of common sense, a lack of correct training, or both.

    The “invisible black ice”, for example, falls firmly into the common sense category. “Is it very cold outside? Yes! I’d better slow down in case there’s ice, especially in more likely locations such as shaded sections of road or bridges over water (i.e. the ‘supercooling’ effect).” Drivers cannot pretend that they were unaware that ice forms at around 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and they certainly should not be allowed to use this as an excuse for unthinking driving.

    As for poor lines of sight, there is a whole raft of guidelines and specific techniques to ensure that drivers always negotiate these in safety, no matter what might be happening in the hidden zone in question — even when the drivers are under pressure to be driving quickly, as with emergency services drivers on the way to a bad incident.

    • Thank you for your comment. I agree that black ice and dealing with sight lines are withing a driver’s control, should they “choose” to drive properly – having received and practiced training/coaching on these issues.

  3. Great blog. I would say that “beyond driver’s control” are things like the death of a motorist on I-40 in Raleigh recently when he, along with others, were slowed or stopped in the right lane of the 8-lane divided freeway … and a tractor trailer came over the hill at speed and was unable to stop in time, damaging many vehicles, and killing the husband and father of 3. That was beyond the deceased driver’s control.

    But other things like “black ice,” “wet roads,” are not “beyond control” because a good driver is aware of the conditions, and prepared to adjust driving techniques for those.

    I feel that those who choose to engage in practices that are known to negatively effect driving ability are responsible for “accidents” that result. If a driver tells an accident investigator, “Well, I was having a phone conference with the office — using my vehicles built-in hands-free system — and had put my cereal bowl on the seat in front of me, when suddently” (ahem) “the other driver pulled out in front of me and then braked without warning,…” is it an accident? I think not. Could it have been avoided? Perhaps not, a car pulling out in front and then stopping is unpredictable. But if you are paying attention and can see the possibility of merging traffic flooding into more than 1 right-hand lane (happens in 4-5 spots around Raleigh), an attentive driver will adapt … ahead of time. Avoidable accident, or “collision.” It varies widely. But in most cases, conscious driver choices and behavior are a major contributing factor to “accidents.” My two cents.

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