Every day, drivers navigate busy intersections and face left turns in heavy traffic. Left turns are one of the riskiest maneuvers drivers can face, and they often lead to accidents. Emphasis is often placed on the infrastructure that makes left turns more difficult, but it is also important to talk about the psychological factors that contribute to left turn accidents. In previous posts, we touched on the many variables that can make left turns difficult. In this post, we will delve deeper into the psychological demands that this multi-variable maneuver requires. When it comes to left turns, drivers should be aware of common mental mistakes that can lead to accidents.
- Misjudgment of Distance and Speed
One of the most pervasive mistakes when it comes to left turns is the misjudgment of the speed and distance of oncoming traffic. Drivers may feel they have enough space to make the left turn, when in reality the oncoming vehicles are much closer and moving much faster than they appear. Some of the factors that contribute to this issue include the size of the oncoming vehicle and weather/visibly conditions. Drivers would be served best by assuming that oncoming traffic is closer than they perceive, and drivers should give themselves extra space prior to making their left turns.
- Inattentional Blindness
There is a common phenomenon where drivers fail to notice oncoming vehicles due to distractions or divided attention. This is called inattentional blindness, and it often plays a role in left turn accidents. Though inattentional blindness can occur because of the divided attention that drivers may place on the multiple variables during left turns, inattentional blindness is more commonly associated with unnecessary distractions like cell phone usage. In order to stay safe on the road, it is extremely important that drivers refrain from using their cell phones or other devices. All of the driver’s attention should be on your surroundings in the intersection.
- Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is a cognitive phenomenon that often leads drivers to believe they can safely complete a left turn, even in hazardous conditions. This type of bias can contribute to accidents in many ways, but one common instance of confirmation bias occurs when drivers who have made a left turn safely in an intersection approach the same intersection with overconfidence. Even if a driver has completed the turn before, the driver should always approach left turns with caution and make all of the necessary checks before attempting the turn. Confirmation bias can also contribute to inattention blindness and other psychological phenomenon that contribute to left turn accidents.
- Overestimating the Right of Way
Overestimating one’s right-of-way can result in perilous left-turn situations. It is important to understand your local traffic laws so that you are familiar with when the right of way applies to you, and when you should be prepared to yield. One example of how a driver could overestimate the right of way is making the assumption that a green light means the absolute right of way. When making a left turn, a green light does not mean that the driver shouldn’t be prepared to yield to oncoming traffic. More commonly, drivers might miss important yield signs of they are not paying close attention.
- Spatial Awareness
Spatial awareness, is a critical aspect of executing safe left turns that is often underestimated. Though spatial awareness plays a role in judging the speed and distance of oncoming traffic, there are other ways that warped spatial awareness can contribute to accidents. One common example occurs at intersections where there are multiple adjacent left turn lanes. Drivers must have good awareness of their turn radius, and be sure to turn into their target lane to avoid encroaching on other traffic. It is important not to turn too tight or too wide.
- Pressure Affects Decision Making
Especially in heavy traffic, making a left turn requires cautious yet swift decision making. One common scenario where pressure make affect a driver’s ability to make safe decisions is when there is a backup of traffic in the left turn lane. Drivers might feel pressured to complete an unsafe turn when they feel pressure from behind them. Making a left turn too hastily can cause a T-bone collision with oncoming traffic. Drivers should remember that defensive driving is the safest way to drive, and it is always appropriate to wait for a safe gap in traffic prior to completed the left turn.
- Cognitive Distractions
Cognitive distractions can be different than the external distractions that can lead to inattention blindness. Cognitive distractions might include daydreaming or other mental preoccupations. Simply put, left turns require the driver’s full attention to complete them in the safest manner. Especially in heavy traffic, drivers should refrain from driving habitually and instead make all maneuvers intentionally and with heightened awareness.
- Impaired Judgement from Fatigue
Fatigue or impaired judgement from substance use makes all road maneuvers much more dangerous. Left turns, in particular, require special attention because of all of the moving variables involved. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, states that about 72,000 annually accidents are caused by driver fatigue. Some researchers have suggested that this is a gross underestimate, and that many more accidents each year are caused by fatigue. Drivers should be aware that it is best to pull over and take a break if you are tired.
There are many improvements that could be made to our intersection infrastructure to make left turns safer. It is also important for drivers to be aware of the psychological factors that could make left turns more dangerous. Understanding that there could be gaps in judgement when completed a complex maneuver like a left turn could encourage drivers to approach complicated traffic scenarios with caution. Remember, driving defensively requires drivers to anticipate risks in order to react and adjust.
One basic rule of thumb is to approach left turns with caution and attention. Drivers should refrain from making hasty decisions, especially when it comes to crossing lanes of oncoming traffic.