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How many pileups do we see on the major highways due to snow, rain, fog or ice that was in all the weather forecasts? (Olga Milkina/iStockphoto)
How many pileups do we see on the major highways due to snow, rain, fog or ice that was in all the weather forecasts? (Olga Milkina/iStockphoto)

The Green Highway

Why it's important to consider the risks when you drive Add to ...

Having once been a private pilot and airplane owner, I still enjoy reading Flying magazine. I generally read it in airports before boarding and pessimistically go to the section with analyses of accident reports first. In almost every case, I ask how the (doomed) pilot could be so stupid as to attempt what led to the accident.

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The causes of most aviation accidents are so similar: flying into known bad weather or known icing conditions, taking off with too little fuel or stalling out while doing something stupid.

In the April issue, there was a very good article by Jay Hopkins who analyzed the “human factor” behind many of these crashes. I believe exactly the same problem is the cause of deaths on our highways.

It’s called confirmation bias. It is the way we humans seek out and trust information that confirms whatever we want to believe.

We seek confirmation that the weather isn’t all that bad and that we should make it through okay, that the runway is long enough on this very hot day or that the fuel won’t run out because there probably won’t be a headwind.

How many pileups do we see on the major highways due to snow, rain, fog or ice that was in all the weather forecasts? How many accidents are caused by tires that blow or brakes that fail which were obviously defective? How many people drink and drive in the belief they’ll make it home and won’t get caught?

Confirmation bias is reinforced by the fact that nearly all of us simply prefer pleasant thoughts to unpleasant ones. Hopkins points to psychology studies that show people typically demand more evidence to support an unpleasant outcome than a pleasant one. We seek confirmation for what we wanted to do in the first place rather than equally weighing evidence that would point in a different direction.

The consequences of confirmation bias are more serious for a pilot than a driver. In horrible weather, a driver can pull off the road and stalling means the engine stops, it doesn’t mean you fall out of the sky. But drivers should be aware of this quirk of the human mind. Realizing it exists is the first line of defence. Force yourself to consider the negative consequences if things don’t work out as you hoped. Realistically consider the risks, don’t just seek confirmation that your drive will be safe.

Every day, I see drivers on the roads doing incredibly stupid things. I’m sure all the self-analysis in the world won’t stop many of them. But there are people who have terrible crashes because they get just a little over their heads in situations that could have been easily prevented.

Consider your confirmation bias when deciding whether it should be go or no-go.

mvaughan@globeandmail.com

Follow us on Twitter: @Globe_Drive

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