I live near a one-way street, and drivers keep turning into it the wrong way by mistake. Most react by getting flustered and backing dangerously into the arterial, perhaps following an instinct to “undo” the error. The safer solution (in my eyes) is to park the car, wait for traffic to clear, then use a driveway to point yourself in the right direction.

Unfortunately, driver’s ed doesn’t teach you how to recover from mistakes like this—at least, mine didn’t. Instead, driver’s ed teaches the rules of the road and how to follow them. Once you have violated the law, even if by accident, you are in undefined territory. Hence, drivers develop a strong impulse to immediately “reverse” errors rather than identify a safe course of action.1

The Federal Aviation Association has invested considerable effort into identifying the root causes of safety incidents and increasing safety baselines. They promote an idea called “just culture” as the alternative to a punitive culture that addresses each safety violation with swift discipline. Instead,

Safety inspectors must understand the difference between accountability, which accepts responsibility and looks forward, and blame, which focuses on punishment for what has already occurred. The key to a just safety culture is the ability to determine where the line should be drawn between unsafe acts that can be effectively addressed by using compliance tools (accountability) and unacceptable behavior that requires the use of enforcement action (blame).2

In the car world, many safety violations, such as drunk driving, street racing, cell phone use, and so on, fall squarely into the “blame the driver” category. But others are better understood as symptoms of inexperience, reasonable reactions to other drivers’ unsafe actions, or simply the inevitable consequences of poor signage. (Here I have deleted two paragraphs complaining about the placement of the ONE WAY signs in my neighborhood.) The blame belongs to multiple parties, and punishing only one yields only a marginal improvement in safety.

Another example we often see in city traffic is drivers who get stuck in the middle of an intersection when the light turns red. Of course, the driver’s manual says plainly that you should never enter an intersection unless you have the time and space to clear it. But this open-and-shut perspective doesn’t account for the real-world practice that drivers need to hone the timing instinct. Nor the pressure received from other drivers (sometimes imagined, other times real honking and yelling) to advance into an unsafe position. Nor how the previous factors interact with the frequent anxiety new drivers experience on the road. I am not saying that we should legalize running red lights, only pointing out that the perception that every unsafe situation flows from an individual’s culpable act makes it harder to identify safety improvements that require coordinated action.

I still don’t know the safe way to get out of the red light situation, nor how best to react (e.g. as a pedestrian crossing the street) when I see someone make that mistake. So, yeah, as the title suggests, I wish that driver’s ed taught strategies for dealing from these common errors, even a simple suggestion such as “Try to focus on how to make the situation safe now rather than what you shouldn’t have done.“

Generalizations to corporate governance, cybersecurity, academia, and so on are left to the reader.

  1. Well, my driver’s ed course did talk about what to do after you get in a collision: Exchange phone numbers, take lots of pictures, call the police, and get clear documentation of who was at fault. 

  2. LeRoy Stromenger, “Understanding the Compliance Program: One Bite at a Time!” FAA Safety Briefing, January/February 2024, 7, https://www.faa.gov/sites/faa.gov/files/JanFeb2024.pdf