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Idiots! (and how to spot them)

Ever notice many people sharing the road with you are idiots? Of course, that’s a rhetorical question; we all notice this any time we leave our garages. But wait—if we all notice this, who’s left in the role of idiot? This deserves a closer look.

First, let’s define the term. “Idiot” in modern parlance is a generic pejorative expressing contempt for someone whose intelligence we consider poor. In the early 1900s, however, it was a non-pejorative technical designation (legal, medical, psychological) for people whose mental abilities were beneath what’s normal for a three-year-old child. While there may be few people with sub-three-year-old intellects out driving, there certainly are throngs of drivers with well-below-average intelligence. Their ability to scan, interpret, and react in logical/reasonable ways to the plethora of complex, shifting stimuli constantly bombarding anyone on the road will be less than optimal—maybe far less. The rules of the road are generally designed with some “lowest common denominator” in mind, but such standards are still beyond some drivers’ reach. The glaringly well-marked three-way stop at the four-way intersection outside my old office regularly exceeded drivers’ comprehension, resulting in lots of horn blowing and bent metal. No one can think better than their brain allows.

Listen to this column as Episode 35 of The Ride Inside with Mark Barnes. Submit your questions to Mark for the podcast by emailing [email protected]. This episode will be available starting 22 August 2023.

Let’s say we expand our usage of the term beyond the original meaning to include people who are simply of low intelligence. Depending on what measure of central tendency our statistical analysis employs, we could be referring to fully half the population; by definition, 50% comprise the bottom half. A more sophisticated description might call the center third “average,” leaving about 33% in the “below-average” category. In either case, we’d still be talking about a big portion of the driving public (though, granted, the very lowest end of either range would be so dramatically disabled as to preclude such activity). This is before we get to further subtractions from native intellect for factors like intoxication, low blood sugar, sleep deprivation, preoccupation with some fresh catastrophe, etc. While people with these latter conditions cannot reasonably be expected to drive well in such states, we generally do expect them to refrain from driving until they’re in better shape. Unfortunately, the very impairments making such folks a hazard on the road also yield bad judgment about going there.

Assessing intelligence, formally with psychological testing or informally based on casual observation, is a tricky matter because intelligence is not a unitary thing. Instead, it’s a conglomeration of numerous dimensions of mental functioning, some of which can be astonishingly disparate. Someone may be a genius at some tasks, yet process others at a grossly inferior level. They could arrive at impressively astute conclusions but do so only after a very lengthy period of inefficient cogitation. There’s also the issue of plain old ignorance; extremely smart people can’t know things they haven’t learned. In the case of behavior on the road, many drivers simply lack knowledge because they’re new to either driving or the area. No driver begins as a good driver. Learning how to fit into the local driving groupthink takes more than memorizing the rules on a licensing test; years of experience are required.

Adding to the list of confounding variables are emotional maturity and acute emotional state. High intelligence is no guarantee against the foolishness of youthful—or not-so-youthful—impulsivity and reactivity, and even bright people can become irrational in the wake of a distressing event; anger, anxiety, and depression all interfere with intellectual functioning. Also, genuine mental illness, while not necessarily a cause of poor judgment, often is. Distraction, too, has become an all-too-common cause of dangerous driving. No matter how much brainpower a person could potentially bring to bear, if their attention is elsewhere, any such intellectual strength is rendered moot. You could argue a texting driver is automatically disqualified from the “smart driver” category, but the poor judgment involved in such behavior can have more to do with habitual repetition and social pressure than broader mental ability.

In short, there are a great many reasons for impairment among those with whom we share the road. In some sense, then, the regularity with which we note defects in others’ driving is unremarkable—we should expect exactly what we encounter, given all the factors converging in the direction of bad behavior. This is why it’s so vitally important for us to ride (and drive) defensively, maintaining our concentration, vigilantly scanning our surroundings, and practicing our vehicle control skills.

It also suggests we ought not insist things should be different, which is our implicit expectation when we curse at drivers we consider idiots. After all, we wouldn’t expect someone who is wheelchair-bound to leap up a flight of stairs. True, such a person doesn’t threaten our well-being like a bad driver, so it’s only natural we’d have a stronger emotional response to the latter. However, reminding ourselves some people are incapable of doing better can help us avoid road rage and the diminished intellectual functioning accompanying it on our ends. We don’t have to approve of bad driving, any more than we’d approve of a snake biting us in the woods. We should just expect impaired human beings to act like impaired human beings, as we expect snakes to act like snakes, and take responsibility for venturing out among them.

Let’s return to the original topic, though. How is it everyone views so many others on the road as idiots? Even if we avoid any evaluation of another person’s intelligence, we still judge them as incompetent. Wouldn’t this mean bad drivers see others as the problem instead of themselves? Yes, exactly! Enter the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Named after the two psychologists who published their research on this striking phenomenon, the Dunning-Kruger Effect describes a partially inverse relationship between actual competence and a person’s self-assessment of same; this applies across various tasks, not to driving in particular. At the low end of the competence scale, people make lots of errors but don’t notice them, so they overestimate their abilities. The worse they really are at something, the better they may think they are. To put it crassly, dumb people are too dumb to realize they’re dumb. At the high end of the competence scale, people with genuine expertise acknowledge they know things others don’t, but rate themselves more modestly relative to the general population because a) they tend to assume others know what has become obvious to them (the experts), and b) they have repeatedly realized on their way to becoming an expert there is always more to learn; in fact, the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. In other words, experts typically underestimate their standing. There are always exceptions, so this doesn’t mean experts can’t be arrogant or incompetent people can’t be humble, but we’ve all witnessed the swaggering confidence of people possessing negligible capability—it’s why “Hey y’all, watch this!” are famous last words for a wide swath of the population.

The Ride Inside with Mark Barnes is brought to you by the MOA Foundation. You can join the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America quickly and easily to better take advantage of the Paul B Grant program mentioned in this episode.

In keeping with these findings, research into American drivers’ self-assessments has repeatedly shown the vast majority (nearly 90% in some studies!) consider themselves above average in key aspects of good driving. Obviously, this cannot be the case. The takeaway is bad drivers typically have no idea they’re bad drivers. People don’t know what they don’t know; they don’t even know that they don’t know. This brings a whole new meaning to the term “blind spot” as applied to driving skills. Hence, bad drivers aren’t likely to seek training that would improve their driving.

We as riders are certainly not immune to this dynamic! To have a reasonably accurate assessment of our riding skills, we need independent evaluation. No matter how highly we’d rank ourselves, there’s always room for training, learning, and practice. Better to learn of our actual deficiencies in a class than at our crash site. Let’s not be idiots about it.

Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.