Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Driving Epistemology

Epistemology is the academic term referring to the filter through which you view the world and to the study of that filter. The quote that finds its way into many a Masters level essay on the subject is that "Where you stand depends on where you sit" (obviously if this were a masters level essay the quote would have to be attributed but it isn't), so my basic thesis with this post is that where you stand depends on which driving seat you are sitting in.

The vehicle you are driving, and the reason for driving it, affects your attitude to driving, to traffic as a whole and to other road users as individuals. So what is it that makes up your driving epistemology? Today I'm going to look at vehicle properties, reason for driving it, and perceived relationship to other road users although other factors are also relevant such as driving experience, gender, age.

First of all the vehicle itself, its physical properties: its size, manoeuvrability, acceleration, and visibility out of the front and the back. I am only going to talk about cars, vans and trucks because they are the ones I know best. I can ride a bike but am not a keen cyclist, I have been on a motorbike but only a couple of times and it wasn't me riding it.

Cars are small and light. They accelerate well (generally) and can fit in small gaps. The visibility is good all round. However, they are low down so you cannot see that far into the distance. Vans are fairly small and generally light if unladen. They can accelerate brilliantly and can fit in fairly small places. They are at times more manoeuvrable than a car although you cannot see out of the back and the mirrors aren't always as big as they could be. You are a little higher up than in a car and can see over cars. Lorries are large and heavy and when fully laden have very slow acceleration. Rigid ones do not like going round corners and articulated ones are extremely long. You cannot often see out of the back and even in an unladen flat-bed lorry there is still a huge blind spot behind it, easily big enough for a whole class of 5 year olds. Forwards they have fantastic visibility, you can see over everything apart from other lorries, can often see the reason for hold-ups. They have lots of mirrors although they also have blind spots. All of these properties inform the filter through which you view the traffic world and form the basis of your behaviour and attitudes.

Secondly the reason for driving plays a huge part. As a lorry driver if I am waiting to turn right from a major road into a minor road but am stopped by a stream of traffic, I will always look first for other lorries, then vans and buses, then lastly cars to let me cross. This is partly due to visibility as mentioned above but also drivers of lorries, vans and buses are generally at work. They spend hours on the road, know that the road system only works by people looking out for each other and they are being paid anyway so another couple of seconds doesn't make a huge difference. If you are on the way to work, it is your own time and any time given up is your own time wasted. Once you are at work, it's the boss' time so you don't mind 'wasting' it. A journey to the shops is one where the shopping is the primary focus and the journey is secondary, sometimes a frustration to be endured. Sometimes, if on the way back after an ordeal or on the way home when what is waiting for you is unappealing, an extended drive is a good thing and this will affect your behiaviour. These are all aspects of your driving epistemology.

The final aspect to discuss today is your perceived relationship to other road users. This is partly related to vehicle size but cars have a special place on the roads. Basically a car is the standard unit of road transport in this country today. In former times it may have been the horse, the horse and cart or the bicycle and these still predominate in other parts of the world but here it is the car. Road systems are designed for cars. Larger vehicles have to block two car lanes to get round some corners and cyclists are squashed into a too-narrow lane at the side and have to get off and walk at some junctions. So in terms of perceived relationships between various road users, cars are at the top of the tree. The car is the default option, anyone else has chosen to drive something different (fair enough there are people who can't drive and cycle as a result but many of them have made a conscious moral decision not to drive) and car drivers often relate to other road users accordingly. Their behaviour is based on this assumption of being the norm from which all others deviate.

And even for those of us who regularly drive other vehicles, once in a car it is very difficult not to do the same.


  1. Excellent overview of driving epistemology, Jenny - an area I confess I'd never really thought about. I like this piece - it's off the beaten track and makes you think seriously about something I confess to having never given a second thought. I shall apply some of these insights when I'm out, although I should note that any deviation from your carefully-constructed 'ideal types' will likely lead me to boil with rage at the inability of said drivers to conform to type! Have they *no* respect?! :-D

  2. Cheers Tony! I think my own take on those drivers who refuse to conform is that they are aware of the type to which they are supposed to conform and do not want to be considered part of that group and therefore act in opposition to the norm. As a result their behaviour is just as much disciplined by the norm as it would be if they conformed! Ta da!