Driving an Autopilot Toward Situational Awareness

The real threat to driving safety is the autopilot we all develop over a lifetime of driving for personal reasons outside of the work setting.  

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This morning I was a lone worker.  I drove my vehicle into work today and did so alone with just my favorite blues station on the radio. I had to be responsible for my own safety.  No one was there to alert me to risks (as my son is so prone to do now) or help me think through the process of navigating hazards.  Alternatively, no one was there to distract me from performing the driving task safely.   In the end, I got to my office safely. However, I cannot tell you the actions I took to arrive safety.  I was on a type of autopilot.

My autopilot helped me drive safely.  The Autopilot includes a set of behaviors such as using my safety belt, hugging the blind turns that are abundant in the mountains, maintaining a safe speed for the situation, and stopping when appropriate.  Thinking back, I honestly couldn’t tell you if I indeed did those things but I assume I did.

I can tell you that my mind was considering my to-do list, my son’s enjoyment of college, and an upcoming trip to Salt Lake.  I was not consciously thinking about the safety of my driving.

Its frankly amazing how a computer autopilot can do everything for an airline flight, takeoff, cruise, and even land, except for taxiing around the airport.  But don’t look for airline pilots to be out of work.  When on autopilot, when variance occurs in weather, routing, sensors, or within aircraft equipment, the pilot is alerted and can take over manual operations.

I can attest to times that I’ve been driving, relying on my autopilot and thinking of something else when my attention was suddenly activated, automatically and with split second timing, to a hazard on my drive.  I go from a mind that is elsewhere to an adrenalin-aided focus bringing me to the right-here, right-now.  And my behaviors followed quickly thereafter to modify my driving and avoid the hazard. 

This all happened so reflexively that it seemed as though the alerting, focusing, and behaviors occurred even before I was aware of the hazard.  Thank goodness for that little fact of human neurology where sensory information is passed through the reactive parts of your brain before hitting the cortex where you become conscious of the situation.  This allows us that split second head start that can make all the difference: It’s like you react first then become aware what your reacting to, you didn’t have to wait on the brain.

But most of the time my autopilot switch-off is not so dramatic.  For example, the erratic actions of another driver will capture my focus away from my daydreaming and I’ll focus to avoid coming in contact with that driver’s erraticism. 

Autopilot is a nice little nuance of cognitive processing that allows us animals, especially humans, to plan, solve problems, or otherwise daydream while performing routine tasks.  And it seems to know when to turn off so we can avoid hazards.  However, when it comes to safety, autopilot can also be dangerous.

They are the multitudes working away from base doing construction, repairs, or maintenance to external facilities.  They work at customer sites providing services or drive to deliver product.  All of these jobs require an extensive amount of solitary driving.  It miles add up quickly; I’m currently working with a multinational oil services company whose employees drive around the world 6 times each day! 

I was told by an insurance company manager that their single biggest exposure to injury is their agents’ driving; and that’s not the first time I heard that fact.  Indeed, driving is one of the most dangerous activities in the work world.  

When driving, injuries can be life-threatening or life changing. Hazards are constantly fluctuating.   Thus, the real threat to driving safety is the autopilot we all develop over a lifetime of driving for personal reasons outside of the work setting. 

On one hand, we drive so much for personal reasons that we gain extensive experience that helps us become more fluent and aware when new hazards come our way.  Indeed, research shows that one reason youth take more risks while driving than adults is because they just don’t have the experience to know when the situation is more hazardous and when their risks are more likely to result in a collision.  

Our experience driving, however, shapes an autopilot that usually does not translate well to driving on the job.  The autopilot developed when driving for personal reasons is executed with a familiar vehicle in familiar surroundings. 

I live in the rural mountains and recently took a trip to the city on business.  I was on my autopilot and suddenly found myself running right through a red light in the middle of the city.  I wasn’t used to so many intersections.  The guy I cut off in the intersection let me know his displeasure by honking.  When he drove up next to me and looked over angrily all I could do was point to my brain and shake my head.  I needed to get off autopilot!

When we drive as part of our work we may be doing so in unfamiliar vehicles in unfamiliar surroundings.  Reverting back to our personal autopilots can result in unconscious risks. 


Also, we have all been shaped to take risks because our personal autopilots work so well.  These risks have been shaped up because we do them often and don’t get in a wreck. On familiar routes we can go so much into autopilot that we choose to eat, look at paperwork, or even text on our phones.   (Do your own survey.  While riding with someone else driving, look at other drivers… you’ll be amazed how many are texting!).  When we take these personal autopilot risks to our work driving the increase collision rises significantly. 

Unfortunately, employeers can take driving experience for granted, assume employees know how to drive from personal experience, and simply send workers out to drive without proper training. At best, we establish a bunch of rules that employees are supposed to follow and fool ourselves as these lone workers revert back to their personal autopilot habits without consequence (until its too late).

But the type of training needed is not driver training courses.   We can indeed assume the worker knows how to use vehicular safety equipment and know the laws of the road.

Instead, the training should focus on installing a new autopilot for the worker, one that creates the necessary situational awareness to be alerted to risks and hazards. In behavioral science we prefer using the term “fluency” to describe a type of autopilot that results in no errors.

Here are some steps that help build the new autopilot with the goals of supporting safe behaviors and situational awareness:

a)    Identify the specific step-by-step behavioral process to be learned with a focus on safety behaviors. 

b)   Identify where people tend to vary in this process and determine why.  These areas of variance tend to lead to errors and risks.

c)    Focus training on these areas under the very circumstances that cause the variance.

d)   Have the trainee practice the behavior under these circumstances.  Build a new level of situational awareness during practice by having trainees frequently identify novelties and potential hazards.

e)    Continue the practice until variance no longer occurs thereby establishing fluency.

Consider the driver making sales or service calls who travels in traffic while having to find and follow directions.  Variance occurs when they get near their destination and then begin to engage their smart phone for direction help and look for location signage instead of remaining aware of other vehicles, traffic patterns, and road signs.  Understand why this happens. Determine an alternative behavioral fix.  For example, they could be trained to set destinations on their smart phones before starting the vehicle and pulling over to park when the directions get complicated or need resetting.  Train this behavioral process until fluency demonstrated during ride-alongs or simulations. 

For the industrial driver in a non-traditional vehicle the variables may be much different.  I’ve been all around the world interacting with drivers in haul trucks carrying 200 tons of ore, or driving work crews in buses on makeshift roads, or transporting hazardous materials on back roads to service remote sites; you name it, they’ve driven it.  The fact is, each of these types of driving offer their own variables that must be understood and trained for.  But in each case there is a situational awareness factor that is paramount in their performance.  

Videos and photographs of different situations containing potential hazards can be developed using old-timers experience (the more realistic the better – such as the kangaroos that love to jump out in front of Aussie transport drivers or the manager in the F350 running across a mining road in front of your haul truck).   Training would expose drivers to these videos and having them identify the hazards which can be reinforced during ride-along sessions until the driver can demonstrate situational awareness fluently.

But even when we shape up fluent autopilots with the necessary situational awareness we don’t want to perform on autopilot all the time.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) put out a recommendation this year that pilots spend more time in manual control of their aircraft.  Their recommendation is based on the concern that pilots’ skills may be degraded because autopilot does not reinforce the pilot skills necessary for manual flight operations, especially if the airplane is in a upset state.  Pilots are also less likely to recognize growing problems in the airplane’s equipment if not periodically engaged.

Therefore, even a correctly shaped behavioral autopilot for the lone driver should be turned off now and again for the same reasons the FAA suggests: to rehearse safety driving skills intentionally and to practice hazard recognition during driving to reinforce situational awareness.  This brings us to the final step of fluency training:

f) Prompt the employee to conduct self-observations periodically while engaged in the task.  These observations should result in a list of safe behaviors, at-risk behaviors, and hazards identified during a 10 minute continuous section of time. 

Fortunately, in this age of on-board computer monitoring systems adopted by many driving-intensive industries, messages can be sent to drivers from their dispatchers/supervisors to conduct a 10-minute self-observation.  With voice recognition software, employee responses can be collected real-time and reviewed later.

This fluency training can result in the development of new driving-related behaviors and situational awareness that can drastically reduce vehicle incidents.  But, the little secret here is that fluency training can be successfully used on any high-risk task … lone worker or not.


Timothy Ludwig’s website is Safety-Doc.com where you can read more safety culture stories and contribute your own.  Dr. Ludwig is a senior consultant with Safety Performance Solutions (SPS: safetyperformance.com), serves as a commissioner for Behavioral Safety Accreditation at the non-profit Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies (CCBS: behavior.org) and teaches behavioral psychology at Appalachian State University, in Boone, NC.  If you want Tim to share his stories at your next safety event you can contact him at TimLudwig@Safety-Doc.com.



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