Last week I mentioned something called a frequency illusion, and I accused it of contributing to negative driving behaviors. I feel I should explain. For those that missed it, a frequency illusion happens when something you just discovered starts showing up everywhere. Frequency illusion is often benign, like when you buy a car and then start noticing every other driver with the same car, or when you discover a band and then start hearing their music everywhere. However, it can also shape our perceptions in ways that increase the risks we take.

As an example, on your commute you might notice a couple cars speed past you. Now that the speeders have your attention you notice them all, without noticing all the drivers who are respecting the speed limit (because they’re not passing you). You might start to think that most drivers speed (which speed studies consistently show to be untrue.) Here’s where the risk comes in: research shows that when a person believes that most other drivers engage in a high-risk behavior, they’re more likely to do it too.

If everyone really was speeding, we wouldn’t call it a frequency illusion; it would be reality. We know that everyone isn’t speeding because DOT tracks vehicle speeds on highways all over the state and releases quarterly speed reports. It turns out that most drivers are within a few miles per hour of the posted speed limit. On most roads aggressively speeding drivers (more than 10 mph over the speed limit) make up only a small percentage of the drivers (lower than one percent on some roads).

If you’re convinced that most people speed, you have what is called a perception gap. That’s when what you perceive to be true and the actual data don’t match up. For example, you could have the opinion that the fourth Jaws movie was the best one, and that’s fine. But if you’re convinced that 90 percent of people love “Jaws – The Revenge” when Rotten Tomatoes reports 15 percent, that’s a perception gap.

Why does all this matter? Just knowing that most people don’t speed decreases the likelihood that you’ll speed next time you drive. I know, we all like to believe that we’re independent thinkers that make our own decisions without regard to external influence, but that’s just not true. Humans are social creatures and we tend to adapt our behavior to reflect the values of our community.

Perception gaps can also happen when your small social circle doesn’t share the dominant cultural value. If you grew up in a family that didn’t wear seat belts, as a child you might have thought that it’s normal to not wear a seat belt, even though over 90 percent of people in Washington use them. That perception would likely affect your decision to wear a seat belt.

I’ve used speeding and seat belts as examples, but I could have used distracted driving, impairment or any other observable driving behavior. Whatever it is, our perception influences our behavior. Recall when as a kid you wanted to do something your parents weren’t on board with and used the line, “but all my friends are doing it.” Your mom probably replied, “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?” The research suggests you might.

The problem isn’t that so many people are engaging in dangerous driving behaviors, it’s that a small percentage of drivers create an outsized risk. Most of us care about the safety of each other, and we reflect that in our driving. That’s a value that’s worth sharing.

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