John Williamson wonders if it is confidence that we won’t be caught that contributes to people making poor driving decisions. In 2014-15 there were 140,000 breath screenings on Northland roads, last year there was only 47,000. Photo / NZME
The sensational arrest and subsequent resignation of Justice Minister Kiri Allan after a crash in Wellington on Sunday night has raised all sorts of issues, most particularly about mental health.
Allan was charged with careless driving and refusing to accompany police after the crash and has also been issued an infringement notice for an excess breath alcohol.
She will not be charged over the breath test.
A lot of societal issues these days are laid at the door of mental health, but we really shouldn’t be blindsided by that sort of excuse, just because a prominent politician broke the law.
The World Health Organisation identifies mental health as: “A state of mental wellbeing that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realise their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.
“It’s an integral component of health and wellbeing, that underpins our individual and collective abilities to make decisions, build relationships and shape the world we live in. Mental health is a basic human right and is crucial to personal, community and socio-economic development.”
So, there you go – our mental wellbeing needs to be right for us to productively perform in a modern society. But it is such an innocuous notion, that it is easy to blame many antisocial and illegal activities on issues with mental health.
I wanted to find out where mental health fits into driver behaviour. After all, Kiri Allan had a crash and was arrested so I googled “Mental Health and Driving”.
A range of headlines popped up; “The Role of Alcohol and Mental Health in Drink Driving” – March 2021, “Stress is a Major Factor of Speeding and Aggressive Driving” – July 2022, “Mental Health Stress Linked to Leap in Bar Managers Who Drink and Drive” – July 2022, “How Sitting in Traffic Jeopardises Mental Health” – February 2020, and “Angry While Driving – Blame it on Your Mental Health” – July 2023.
A pretty recent phenomenon which recognises that if you are not right in the head, you pose a danger to yourself and others, when you are in charge of 1500 kilograms of flying metal on our roads.
But, it’s not just being stressed or depressed or anxious or drunk that causes us to break driving laws. Many of us are much more deliberative about that. Behavioural scientists can give us psychological reasons why seemingly conscientious, disciplined, rational and mentally fit individuals end up risking our safety, and breaking traffic rules at times.
Firstly there’s the “social norms” – I do what others are doing and we conform to behaviours which are seen by others around us. Then, there’s the “over confidence bias” – we are confident in our ability to handle multiple tasks, like sipping coffee or checking the mobile phone while driving, except perhaps, when we strike an emergency.
Next, we have an “illusion of complete control” – we believe that sitting behind the wheel with the ability to turn, accelerate or stop at will, puts us in complete control, but then it could lead to an aggressive driving style.
As well, we have a “fundamental attribution error” – where we use a completely different lens to judge other drivers’ actions versus our own. We create a biased expectation of others and it’s always the other driver’s fault. Then we have “inattention blindness”, which is the failure to see a highly visible object directly in our sight line, such as a speed limit sign, when our attention is elsewhere.
Finally, we have a confidence that we won’t be caught – because you hardly see traffic cops on the road these days. It’s this last one that is a real issue on Northland roads. In 2014-15 there were 140,000 breath screenings on our roads. Last year there were only 47,000.
Alcohol breath testing has nosedived by two-thirds in that time, in a region that has the country’s worst alcohol and drugged-based driving fatality rate. We asked our local MP about this, and the response was that police are too busy chasing family violence!
So, no matter what mental health factors there might be in play with driving, confidence about not being caught is pretty real. Is that why former Justice Minister Kiri Allan got behind the wheel on Sunday night? Except she crashed and was caught.