Is technology making us less courteous on the road?

Shortly before Christmas in 2015 James Stocks made legal history, although it was an unwanted present. The 24-year-old from Cheshire became the first driver to be jailed on the basis of dashcam footage when his dangerous overtaking maneuver forced another vehicle off the road. Stocks was unaware that he was being monitored by a following vehicle, and the footage was later sent to the police – leading to his eventual court appearance.

Since then, we’ve seen hundreds of stories of stupid and reckless driving, accompanied by digital footage in glorious HD. The cameras are so small and cheap, with such clear footage that’s easy to download, that they can capture anything from the five vehicle pile-up to the arrogant sports car owner pulling out into busy traffic with little regard for those around him. Take a look at these two extremes from Peterborough – the horrendous, albeit drink-assisted madness of the woman who flipped her car (also containing her 19-month-old son) and this film from the city’s Lincoln Road, replete with cars reversing into busy traffic and generally ignoring traffic conventions.

It’s many miles away from the early cars of the late 19th Century when a gentleman would walk 60 yards before an automobile with a red flag to warn others of its approach. This was a time when a Daimler or Peugeot would trundle onwards at 4mph, and only the well-heeled could afford this pleasure. Our roads must have been a sight to behold when cars were a rarity and a journey was unrestricted and unhindered by roadworks and other drivers. Take a look at this joyous account of driving from 1895:

“We set forth at exactly 9.26 am and made good progress on the well-made old London coaching road; it was delightful traveling on that fine summer morning…every place we passed through we were not unnaturally the objects of a great deal of curiosity. Whole villages turned out to behold, open mouthed, the new marvel of locomotion. The departure of coaches was delayed to enable their passengers to have a look at our horseless vehicle, while cyclists would stop to gaze enviously at us as we surmounted with ease some long hill.” 

We still regard many drivers with an open-mouthed expression, but often a stream of invective is more likely to pour out. Fast forward to the 21st Century and there are now almost 26 million cars on our roads at the end of 2015, an increase of 1.6 million in England, 142,000 in Scotland and 69,000 in Wales since 2011. Is it too much of a leap to suggest that one of the main reasons one might be more impatient, and less willing to be polite to our fellow motorist, is that there are simply more impediments to our progress?

Unless of course, the perception of driving today is incorrect. According to research by Lease Car, 93% of drivers believe they are courteous on the road – but conversely nearly 70% believe Britain’s roads have become less courteous in the past decade. ‘White van men’ are regarded as the least polite, and Nottingham was revealed as the least courteous city.

So there’s clearly a disparity between our perception of our own driving habits and the behavior of others.

If we are going to return to the grand old days of politeness on our roads, then technology may have a part to play as a preventative measure, as well as one that records transgressions. Already, actions such as indicating and flashing our lights can exist both as safety measures and symbols of goodwill. Satnavs not only show us the best ways of progressing from A to B but also try to steer us from the busier routes and therefore save us time – that should make us less impulsive, no?

Take the further example of telematics and its application to driving. Telematics is the technical term for sending computer data long distances, and in driving it usually, expresses itself in the form of a ‘black box’ mounted to a car that records driver behavior. Both motorist and insurer can monitor the driver’s habits, and good driving could result in lower insurance premiums, which is clearly good for young drivers who are desperate to take to the road but hamstrung by high insurance costs. Presumably, another possible result is a reduction of discourteous driving such as harsh braking and aggressive overtaking?

Except that there is one obvious inconsistency here; after young drivers, the next most likely user of black box technology is vehicle fleets, and we have already seen that these are regarded as the least courteous drivers on the road.

Companies like fitting their vehicles with fleets as they can monitor punctuality, the real-time location of their drivers, fuel consumption and even the health of the vehicle. John Watkins, executive chairman of Trakm8, told The Telegraph: “By monitoring driving styles such as harsh acceleration, heavy braking, cornering and idling time, fleet managers use Trakm8’s insights to identify costly areas for improvement and to meet the specific training requirements of their drivers.”

No doubt the introduction of telematics 15 years ago has cut down on company costs and possibly accidents, but it still hasn’t reduced an overall perception of the van driver as discourteous. But perhaps there is a deeper issue here – maybe those drivers that we regard as behaving poorly are more symptomatic of the digitized 21st century, where everything is rush rush rush, and we simply don’t interact the same way anymore.

Our main concerns when it comes to manners are linked to people’s perception of us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and not via a phone or face to face. Why speak when we can simply tap a keyboard? While using our mobile phone is illegal while driving that certainly isn’t the case while walking, hence the introduction of ‘phone lanes’ in south-east Asia, and surely the UK, soon enough?

The final frontier for courteous driving is not simply using technology to marshal and enable the act, but take over it completely; driverless cars. The likelihood is that, by the year 2025, fully automated cars will be commonplace. A mass of sensors, cameras, and data will decimate accidents (since 93% are due to human error), cut down on the number of vehicles on the urban roads, and generally change the landscape of driving forever.

There are still a huge number of questions, and The Guardian attempted to answer at least some of them here. However, nowhere in the piece are questions of those very human traits of manners and politeness broached. Will a driverless car ‘let someone in’? Will it recognize the pleading face of the driver desperate to slip into a convoy of slow-moving traffic, or move blithely onwards impassively? Will we ever get a situation where two driverless cars, on a road situation with equal priority, both stop to allow the other to proceed and refuse to move forward – a situation currently remedied by a hand gesture or a smile? It essentially boils down to two questions: can we ‘programme’ courtesy, and will we need to?