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Worth the risk? Speeders feel rewarded by arriving, psych profs say

A University of Waterloo psychology professor says it’s clear those who speed have decided the benefits outweigh the costs and the risks.
A University of Waterloo psychology professor says it’s clear those who speed have decided the benefits outweigh the costs and the risks. - Contributed
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Read more about our Need for Speed, its risks and consequences

TRURO, N.S. — It’s risk versus reward, and scenarios like this one play out on our highways time after time.

Jan. 2, 2018. First day back to work after the New Year’s holiday and the motorist, running late, was in a hurry…

The rural road was slightly slick with snow but the driver gave little thought to the fact he was driving faster than conditions reasonably allow. Rounding a bend, he came upon a slower driver and, unable to immediately pass for several “long” kilometres, his impatience and frustration began to grow.

“Finally,” he thought, when a clear stretch of road enabled him to go by the other driver. And, with that, his leaden foot pushed down even harder on the gas pedal.

A short distance down the road, however, the driver’s joy was short-lived as he came around another corner and saw an oncoming car suddenly pull off to the side of the road. And then, on came the flashing red and blues.

“Oh great,” he thought, “just what I need. A speeding ticket.”

'Places to go'

“Why do people speed? That’s a pretty easy answer, man,” said Scott Geller, a psychology professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the United States.

“People speed because they’ve got places to go. It’s about consequences and they usually get there safely,” he said. “So, in fact, speeding is rewarded. In behavioural science terms, we would say it is enforced. I get re-enforced for speeding because I get to my destination faster and nothing happened. So, I’ll do it again.”

Scott Geller
Scott Geller

Geller, 76, is in his 50th year of teaching at the university. He specializes in applied behavioural science and one of his areas of specialty deals with alcohol-impaired driving, driver safety training and other driving behaviours.

Although the reward for speeding in many instances may mean a difference of only a few minutes, “to us, it feels like, ‘wow, it worked,’” he said. “We have a busy society these days, don’t we? We have a busy life. Everybody’s got places to go.”

The sense of comfort from getting away with speeding that one time can also build complacency, which can lead to further incidences of speeding. Route familiarity can also play a role.

And further compounding the issue is the fact many of today’s automobiles have increased horsepower and handling efficiencies, which makes it easier to safely speed along the highway or manoeuvre through curves at speeds higher than the posted limit.

“So they learn from experience that they don’t have to go that slow,” Geller said.

Subconscious choice?

Derek Koehler, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, agrees the will to speed is derived, at least in part, from the risk-versus-reward concept.

“At a basic level, we can say that someone who is speeding has decided that the benefits outweigh the costs or the risks,” he said.

But he suggested such decisions are more or less made at a subconscious level.

Derek Koehler
Derek Koehler

“We’re in a hurry to get somewhere, we go a little bit over the speed limit and what’s the harm in doing that? It doesn’t even feel risky,” he said. “You’re not really making a conscious decision to speed, you just feel hurried, just in terms of an emotional basis.”

But from a psychological perspective, Koehler questions whether a driver’s perception of such risks and benefits are really accurate. In other words, drivers who speed are actually underestimating the risk and overestimating the benefit, which, in essence, is a mistake.

If you speed on your way to work, for example, you may arrive a few minutes earlier than you otherwise might have. But that doesn’t mean you are always going to get away with it.

As with the driver at the beginning of the story, the risk far outweighed any benefits he could have derived, especially considering the downtime at the side of the road while the officer writes up his speeding ticket and the subsequent hundreds of dollars in fines paid to the court.

And, of course, the greater the speed, the greater the penalty, including the potential loss of licence and the privilege to drive entirely.

But above all else, Geller said, is the danger speeders pose to themselves and other motorists.

“I think we really need to take a step back and become systems thinkers,” Geller said. “We just need to actively care for people.”

Read more about our Need for Speed, its risks and consequences

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