Bad drivers? Black boxes are not the answer

Jim Holder of Autocar posted yesterday about the increasing number of black boxes being fitted to cars for the purpose of driving down insurance premiums. The black box monitors a variety of things, from speed to acceleration and braking to corner, as well as tracking where you’ve driven, and uses those metrics to determine how safe of a driver you are. Around 455,000 cars are expected to have black boxes this year, and the British Insurance Brokers’ Association suggests those drivers could see up to a 25% reduction on their premiums. 


Is the black box a good idea? I don’t think so, for three reasons. 

In the first place, it is yet another extension of the surveillance state. It is an unnecessary infringement of our privacy, and raises all kinds of issues about what will be done with the data that is collected. This is a bad precedent to set in a society where we are increasingly losing our right to privacy already. 

Secondly, as one of the commenters on Holder’s article suggest, simple metrics recorded by a computer never tell the whole story: 

What annoys me is that I would be penalised for tight cornering at 60mph on a 60mph, empty, dry, clear visibility road. But the person I followed this morning doing 45mph on a 50mph road while nearing taking out a pedestrian and pram would get full marks (they made no effort to brake, so it would show smooth driving, whilst the poor mum had to virtually dive into a hedge with her pram to avoid being hit).

Similarly, when I’m out on the empty roads of County Durham on a Saturday, enjoying a bit of spirited driving on the twisty, up-and-down roads of the North Pennines, I’m almost always driving under the speed limit, yet the black box would probably be constantly logging me for cornering too hard, regardless of the fact that what I’m doing is perfectly legal and perfectly safe.

Finally, and most importantly, you do not make better drivers by means of stricter policing. You make better drivers through better training, and through character formation.

Few people disagree that most driver training is inadequate. It prepares you to pass a test rather than to drive in the real world. Some drivers are aware of this, and become better drivers over time as they consciously adapt to driving in everyday conditions once they’ve ticked the boxes that give them their driving licence. Restructured and more extensive training could improve on this.

However, like most things in life, being a good driver is never solely down to how much training you receive. It also has to do with your character. Matt Prior, also of Autocar, in a short post a few months ago, suggested that bad drivers don’t just drive badly, they do everything badly. His point, as I took it, is that bad drivers are usually accompanied by a lack of common sense, and in some cases, a lack of character. If the driving skills of general populace are to improve, these things need to be addressed as well.


Granted, I’m not sure how you can do that effectively. Some people are simply endowed with more common sense than others. But the kind of character it takes to be responsible behind the wheel is, I think, something that can be cultivated. 

Two things did it for me. When I was 16 and got behind the wheel of a car for the first time, before I even started the car, my dad said to me, ‘When you pull out on the road, the lives of everyone around you are now in your hands.’ For a 16-year-old who is thinking that he’s just about to have a bit of fun in his dad’s car driving up and down a fairly empty stretch of road, those words hit me like a ton of bricks. Where I had always looked at driving as fun activity, my dad immediately helped me realise the weight of the responsibility I carried behind the wheel. And what’s more, he constantly modelled that for me.

Also, like any teenager (and in spite of my dad’s advice), I did a few stupid things when I first started driving. Mercifully, I never found myself in a situation where I put others at risk, but I scared the daylights out of myself a couple of times, once braking far too late for a corner and ending up sideways on the shoulder, and once attempting to drift a vehicle on a wet road and sending it into an uncontrollable skid, barely avoiding a several-feet-deep ditch. Those two instances in particular suddenly made me aware of how quickly things could get out of control if I let down my guard, even for a moment, when in control of such a powerful machine. You can’t just shrug those sorts of things off. They build character and responsibility (though looking back I certainly wish I had learned those lessons in a less dangerous context).

Can you teach these sorts of things and form the characters of all new drivers? Perhaps. At the beginning of the very first driving lesson, when the trainee is sitting behind the wheel, in a place where there are lots of other cars and pedestrians moving around nearby, driving instructors could begin with some words about the responsibility they now bear as they assume control of the car. Further, driver training could involve more scenarios where the trainees lose control of the vehicle or find themselves in near-accident situations. These can be engineered to be perfectly safe, of course, yet still give new drivers both the sense of fear that accompanies such an incident and the increased ability to react accordingly and deal safely with complex situations on the road.

Good driving is not simply about following the rules of the road. It is about knowing the capabilities of your vehicle, reading and adapting to the context you are driving in, and anticipating and reacting appropriately to everything that is going on around you.

Are we really suggesting that a simple electronic tracking device is capable of teaching any of this?