I’m a great driver - everyone else causes problems

David Smith (left) and Andrew Love are course leaders.
David Smith (left) and Andrew Love are course leaders.
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‘What do you imagine other drivers think of you when you speed?” the instructor asked one of his students, who had just proclaimed that he has been caught going over the speed limit in the past.

“They probably think I’m a danger man,” said the student, perhaps quite rightly.

I was sitting in a classroom at the Sixfields Stadium in Northampton, during a Northamptonshire Police course entitled, What’s Driving Us?

Sessions are also held regularly in Corby and – although not designed for drivers who have committed speeding offences – they are for people who have committed other deliberate driving offences.

For those who have been guilty of acts such as running red lights or using mobile phones when they are driving, the course is an alternative to paying a fine. Drivers can also be sent on the course if a police officer has deemed it appropriate that they do so.

I was invited by Northamptonshire Police to attend the course, which is just about to mark its first anniversary, and to find out more about how offending drivers are re-educated on their behaviour behind the wheel.

The heavy silence which hung in the air as people waited to enter the course was reminiscent of the kind of quiet one gets in a school hallway as naughty pupils await a meeting with a headmaster.

Speaking with Safer Roads Education Officer Richard Eaton, it seems that this comparison is not too far off the mark when it comes to what people expect.

He said: “They probably come here with preconceived ideas. They think it is going to be a police officer telling them off, but it is really a psychological course to make you aware of your driving habits. It is to make you think about your driving without waving a big stick. It is much better to have some sort of education for people.”

The people on the course bore a mixture of ages and attitudes. To most, it probably came as a surprise that the person at the head of the room was not an annoyed-looking officer in uniform. In fact, they were greeted with the friendly faces of trained and experienced driving instructors, Andrew Love and Dave Smith.

Instead of a list of road rules and a lesson on the Highway Code, the instructors immediately started exploring the psychological perspectives of the drivers in the room and those they may meet on the road.

Students were told that last year there were 1,901 fatalities on British roads (about five people a day) and 203,950 crashes and collisions.

They were then talked through the ‘change cycle’ that human emotions pass through when there is a big change in someone’s life (denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance) and this was applied to how they felt about their own offences.

Students were then asked to write down what they enjoy about driving and what sort of person they think they are. I had a go at answering these in a workbook and found them quite easy. Obviously driving makes you feel free, independent and that you have choices. As to the kind of person I think I am, these were all positive adjectives. The tricky question came when we were asked, ‘how would other people describe you?’ And, ‘how would a stranger watching you drive describe you?’ I soon realised I didn’t have a clue and I didn’t seem to be alone.

Then came a series of scenarios such as ‘you are overtaking and the other driver speeds up,’ and ‘you are trying to join a motorway and a driver in the nearest lane doesn’t move over’. The participants were asked ‘how do these scenarios make you feel?’ The answers come back thick and fast: ‘scared’, ‘angry,’ ‘frustrated’...

The class was then asked to rate out of 10 how they felt about themselves as drivers and how they would rate all other drivers.

Interestingly, most of the group gave themselves a rating higher than five and gave other drivers a lower rating. Answering the question in my own head, I also found that I did the same. The question was a simple one, but certainly left me thinking about the truth of the matter. If everyone thinks they are good drivers, then who are the bad ones?

The second half of the course was spent analysing emotional intelligence. It sounds complicated, but was broken down simply. One situation given was that of a driver at a blind junction, pulling out in front of someone and then being tailgated by the other car. The class was asked to analyse the feelings of both the person who pulled out (possibly intimidated by the tailgating driver?) and the tailgating driver (angry and resentful?). They then had to come up with real storylines for the lives and motivations of both people.

The message behind the exercise seemed to hint that, when sitting in one of the metal boxes we call cars, we very often dehumanise other drivers. The person who pulls out in front of us may easily seem like an annoying, selfish person who some may think deserves some sort of revenge action, rather than someone who just made a mistake because they couldn’t see properly. And this can lead drivers into acting in very different ways compared to their normal, every-day interactions with people. Definitely food for thought. But how does the course work?

Dave said: “It was devised by psychologists and the aim is to get people to take more responsibility for themselves. Some people really do get it and can understand it, although I’m sure we do have one or two clients who think ‘what was that about?’

Andrew said: “The outcome isn’t always achieved in the course.”

Dave agreed: “They will think about it as they go on.”

Andrew said: “The second bit of the course is about emotional intelligence and that is the biggest issue we have. We look at emotions, why you do something and how you can control your emotions while you are driving.”

But if everyone thinks they are a good driver and that everyone else on the road is bad, does the general public really have enough self-analysis to get something out of this course?

Andrew said: “I think everyone analyses what they do and whether they admit that to us, that is another thing.”

Richard said: “It is really good for people to step back. We learn badly in this country and develop bad habits. This hopefully gives them something to think about and it is better than a fine or three points on your licence.”