How to have a car accident

I know, you’re an excellent driver. AAA notes that ¾ of you report being above average drivers, and (spoiler alert) four out of five men report being above average drivers.

At the same time, AAA found 90% of accidents the result of human error with about ¾ of them involving you above-average drivers. (Oddly, car insurance statistics reveal 71% of the deceased from car accidents turn out to be men. I leave this for you to ponder and discuss.)

As many of you will be on the road this season. You’ll be in an ideal position to create the conditions for accidents. Our cognitive processes will be ready to assist you.

First to our aid will be the two processes that do most of the work of managing our attention: our divergent and convergent.

We’re using our divergent process as we’re tracking the bus in front of us, the car next to us drifting too close, the animal on the side of the road, while the radio’s on, and the cell phone is starting to ring. We do an almost instantaneous and almost simultaneous -- operative word: almost -- scan of all these stimuli.

It’s also the process allowing us to access our experience; that is, anything we’ve learned, remembered, trained for, patterns we recognize, analogies we apply to help us understand what we’re experiencing in the moment.

This is what happens when red lights come on in front of you: you recognize them as brake lights; you take your foot off the accelerator, put it on the brake with exactly the right amount of pressure for the right amount of time to bring yourself to a safe stop; meanwhile checking the rearview mirror to make sure the truck behind you is doing the same thing.

When all this goes well, it takes about 1/30 of a second to respond.

Accident opportunity #1 -- quick reflexes aren’t quick enough at high speed

At 70mph, most excellent driver, you travel a little more than 30 yards before initiating the process. Then it’s another 80 yards to get to a stop. If you round a curve and that bus is stopped at the 60 yard line . . . .

To respond at 1/30 of a second, we need our divergent attention. This is how we get the rapid integration of context and experience to drive at high speeds..

Meanwhile we have our convergent process, Our convergent process slows us down so we put the focus on one thing so we can understand: how do I know this and how do I get this done.

Accident responders and your insurance company describe the rubbernecker accident. It goes down like this.

You’re traveling at 70mph northbound. On the southbound side, cars are stopped, emergency and police vehicles are flashing. “What’s going on?” you think, and without your awareness, your attention shifts from wide and rapid to concentrated. You have now lost situational awareness by shrinking your focus to one thing.

Accident opportunity #2 -- the car is still going fast, but your mind slowed down.

The drivers in front of you are doing the same thing, Some have lost lane awareness; others speed awareness; you have lost awareness of what’s in front of you while traveling 100 yards per second . . .

The holidays will provide many of you with the opportunity to put these scenarios to the test.

Be aware of the activation of your diverse awareness and try not to proceed faster than it does.

Correspondingly, if you find yourself slipping into single-mindedness, be sure to lift your attention back around. If you find yourself drifting into a pattern of single mindedness, it’s probably time for a break.

That rapidly responding divergent process takes a lot of energy. Make sure to keep it refreshed.

Godspeed and safe driving this holiday season.

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