Painful Truth: Are all drivers above average?

I am not a great driver.

I think I am getting better, though. I am trying, and working on a few things.

For example, when I make right-hand turns, I am forcing myself to do a quick shoulder check. Those of us who grew up learning to drive in the rural Lower Mainland are used to being able to just whip around corners.

However, in urban areas, there are often pedestrians waiting to cross the road, and obviously, my lack of shoulder checking could crush them into pink paste.

This little confession is odd for two reasons.

First, very few people, when asked, will tell you they are bad drivers, or indeed that they are anything less than excellent.

Surveys since the 1980s have revealed that drivers consistently rate themselves good to excellent. A 1981 survey found 93 per cent of Americans rated themselves in the top 50 per cent. A 2011 Allstate survey found similar results, with 64 per cent of Americans rating themselves “excellent” or “very good.”

Mathematically, that’s impossible.

This type of self-ranking is known as the Lake Wobegon Effect, after the fictional town in which Garrison Keillor noted that “all the children are above average.”

There’s also probably some link to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, in which people who are very, very bad at something mistakenly think they are amazing. So the worst drivers among us are more likely to rank themselves at the top end!

The second reason it’s odd that I can say I’m not a perfect driver is that we allow that confession in our society, with no repercussions.

Imagine if I was a heart surgeon and I casually mentioned to you that I’m pretty good, but sometimes I have a little trouble with the left ventricle. I’m working on it, but I’m not going to stop operating just because I need a little more practice!

Would you let me near an operating room? Of course not!

Nor would you trust an engineer who guesstimated on a bridge’s carrying capacity, a nuclear power plant technician who was a bit fuzzy on meltdown prevention, or a bomb squad member who chose which wire to cut with a coin flip?

We treat driving differently from most other dangerous activities. I’m allowed behind the wheel, despite my admission that I’m one bad day away from running over a baby stroller in a crosswalk.

I think the main reason I have for being suspicious of my own driving ability is my father’s good example of self-assessment. He worked as a bus driver, and came to it relatively late in life. When I turned 16, he announced that he would teach me the basics, and then I was going to be enrolled in a driving school. He was aware he still had a few bad habits, and he had no intention of passing any along to me, he said.

I should note that, in a 10-year bus driving career, he caused one accident – he clipped a lamp post with his bus’s side mirror.

He was also rammed twice by people driving compact cars who apparently didn’t notice either A) the red lights they were running, or B) the giant freakin’ bus in the middle of the intersection. Dunning-Kruger strikes again.

I hope that when most people say they’re above average, they aren’t exaggerating much. Maybe driving skill is a big bell curve, with lots of us in the middle, at least close to average, a little scattering of highly skilled, safe drivers, and a few idiots on the left hand side of the graph.

But even if that’s true, and those drivers admit they’re garbage, we won’t make them give up their licences. Cars are so vital to so many, that we tolerate even obvious flaws, at least until they turn tragic.

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