Acta Psychologica 47 (1981) 143-148
0 North-Holland Publishing Company
ARE WE ALL LESS RISKY AND MORE SKILLFUL THAN OUR
FELLOW DRIVERS? *
Department of Psychology, University of Stockholm, Sweden
Accepted March 1980
In this study subjects were asked about their competence as drivers in relation to a group of
drivers. The results showed that a majority of subjects regarded themselves as more skillful and
less risky than the average driver in each group respectively. This result was compared with sim-
ilar recent findings in other fields. Finally, the consequences for planning and risk taking of
seeing oneself as more competent than others were discussed briefly.
Do people engaged in a risky activity where skill plays some role, have
an unbiased view of their own skill and risk taking? More specifically,
do they have a correct conception of their own skill and risk taking
behavior, e.g., in comparison to others?
One of the most common and best known risky activity in modern
society is that of driving a car. Therefore, some observations of drivers’
notions of their own driving skills and risk taking behavior will be pre-
sented in this paper. The observations will then be used as a start for a
brief discussion of the importance of an actor’s self image on his risk
taking behavior and his readiness to find information about risk and
safety applicable to himself.
For a long time it has been asserted (ct Naatanen and Summala
1975) that most drivers tend to believe that they are better drivers than
the average driver. This assertion was based on studies made several
decades ago and poorly documented in reports now virtually impossible
* This study was sponsored by the Swedish Council for Social Science Research. I want to
thank the people at Decision Research, a branch of Perceptronics, in Eugene, Oregon, Kit Sjo-
berg and Berndt Brehmer for support and discussions about the paper.
Author’s address: Dept. of Psychology, University of Stockholm, Box 6706, S-11385 Stock-
144 0. Svenson /Estimates of risk and skill
to obtain (but for a summary see Naatanen and Summala 1975). In
these studies subjects were asked to judge how safely they drove in
comparison with the average driver, vaguely defined as drivers in gen-
eral. Typically, the results showed that around 70-80% of the subjects
were reported to put themselves in the safer half of the distribution.
The following experiment was performed in order to try to replicate
the earlier findings but in a situation where the subjects were asked to
compare themselves with a more well-defined population of drivers
whose characteristics were, at least partly, known to the subjects. Such
comparisons should reduce possible effects of group stereotypes (e.g.,
“California drivers are better drivers”) which could explain part of the
A total of 161 Ss participated in the experiment. Of these 81 were American stu-
dents who responded to an advertisement in the University of Oregon student paper
and had a driver’s licence. The median age of the US Ss was 22 years. Forty-one of
them judged their skill in driving and 40 judged how safe they were as drivers. In
Sweden, Ss were recruited among psychology students at the University of Stock-
holm having a driver’s licence. Eighty students with a median age of 33 years partic-
ipated. Driving skill was judged by 45 and safety by 35 of the Swedish students.
In the US group the questions were given in written form to the Ss as one of several
tasks to judge in a session involving a variety of other judgment tasks.
The Swedish Ss were also given the questions in written form but did not have
any more task to fulfill in the session. To illustrate, the question concerning safety
was formulated as follows:
We would like to know about what you think about how safely you drive an
automobile. All drivers are not equally safe drivers. We want you to compare
your own skill to the skills of the other people in this experiment. By definition,
there is a least safe and a most safe driver in this room. We want you to indicate
your own estimated position in this experimental group (and not, e.g., Eugene,
Oregon or in the U.SJ (or (and not e.g., people in Stockholm or in Sweden)).
Of course, this is a difficult question because you do not know all the people
gathered here today, much less how safely they drive. But please make the most
accurate estimate you can.
Distribution of percent of estimates over degree of safe and skillful driving in relation to other drivers. Higher percentiles represent less risky and
more skillful driving.
Estimated position in sample (percentiles)
O-10 11-20 21-30 31-40 41-50 51-60 61-70 71-80 81-90 91-100
2.5 0.0 5.0 0.0 5.0 2.5 2.5 22.5 37.5 22.5
0.0 5.7 0.0 14.3 2.9 11.4 14.3 28.6 17.1 5.7
0.0 2.4 2.4 2.4 0.0 12.2 22.0 12.2 26.8 19.5
2.2 6.7 2.2 4.4 15.5 17.7 11.1 24.4 13.3 2.2
146 0. Svenson /Estimates of risk and skill
The question about driving skill was given in the same way as the question about
safety with minor changes in wording to fit the task. The responses were given on
a percentile scale by marking one of 10 successive 10 percent intervals.
The distributions of the judgments are shown in table 1 for the two groups and the
two questions respectively. The table shows that most of the Ss in the group viewed
themselves as safer and more skillful drivers than the rest of the group.
The medians for the distributions of safety judgments in table 1 fall in the inter-
val 8 l-90% for the US group and between 7 1 and 80% for the Swedish group. This
indicates that half of the Ss believe themselves to be among the safest 20 (US) or 30
(Sweden) percent of the drivers in the two groups respectively. In the US group
88% and in the Swedish group 77% believed themselves to be safer than the median
The medians for the distributions of skill judgments fall in the interval 61-70%
for the US group and between 51-60% for the Swedish group. Of the US sample
46.3% regard themselves among the most skillful 20%. The corresponding number
in the Swedish group was only 15.5%. In the US sample 93% believed themselves to
be more skillful drivers than the median driver and 69% of the Swedish drivers
shared this belief in relation to their comparison group.
In summary, there was a strong tendency to believe oneself as safer and more
skillful than the average driver. In addition, there seemed to be a stronger tendency
to believe oneself as safer than and more skillful than the average person.
Very clearly, the present results illustrate a strong tendency among the
subjects to believe themselves to be more skillful and less risky than the
others in the groups. These results may reflect purely cognitive mecha-
nisms or may be mainly a result of lacking information about the others
in the group which may lead a majority of the people to regard them-
selves as “better”. For example, the results may be explained by cog-
nitive mechanisms, such as, low memory availability of negative events
(e.g., accidents or near accidents) in the experimental situation (ct
Tversky and Kahneman 1974; Svenson 1978). But there is also evidence
pointing at greater generality of the findings (cJ: Slavic et al. 1978). For
instance, Preston and Harris ( 1965) compared 50 drivers whose driving
involved them in accidents (serious enough to require hospitalization)
with 50 drivers without accident histories but matched in relevant vari-
ables. When asked about how skillful drivers they were, the two groups
0. Svenson / Estimates of risk and skill 147
gave almost identical means indicating that the average driver, irre-
spective of accident record, judged himself to be more skillful than the
average on the nine point scale. According to police records 34 of the
drivers in the accident group were responsible for the accidents. The
accident group had a higher frequency of previous traffic violations.
This seems to indicate that we have difficulties in learning from experi-
ence (cc Brehmer 1980).
Traffic safety campaigns with general road safety propaganda seem
to have short-lived effects, if any (~5 Wilde 1972) which is quite under-
standable if we believe ourselves safer than most others. Why should we
pay much attention to information directed towards drivers in general
if we are safer and more skillful than they are?
Similar findings indicating prevailing views of oneself as generally
more favorable than others have been reported also in other areas such
as ethics (Baumhart 1968), success in sales management (Larwood and
Whittaker 1977), attribution of responsibility (Miller and Ross 1975;
Regan et al. 1975; Ross and Sicoly 1979). By way of example, Lar-
wood and Whittaker (1977) found that management students and cor-
porate presidents held a self-serving bias of their own competence
which lead to overly optimistic and risky planning for the future. Thus,
believing oneself as more skillful than others may lead to greater risk
taking which is positively reinforced for those who “win the game” and
are successful (e.g., stay on top positions in business or administration).
The same reasoning also applies to the successful risky driver but here
the gain of success tends to be less and the cost in suffering and money
for failures (accidents) seems to be intolerably great.
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Brehmer, B., 1980. In one word: not from experience. Acta Psychologica 45,223-241.
Larwood, L. and W. Whittaker, 1977. ManegeriaJ myopia: self-serving biases in organizational
planning. Journal of Applied Psychology 62,194-198.
Miller, D.T. and M. Ross, 1975. Self-serving biases in the attribution of causality: fact or fic-
tion? Psychological Bulletin 82, 213-225.
Ntitiinen, R. and H. Summala, 1975. Road-user behavior and traffic accidents. Amsterdam:
Preston, C.E. and S. Harris, 1965. Psychology of drivers in traffic accidents. Journal of Applied
148 0. Svenson /Estimates of risk and skill
Regan, J.W., H. Gosselink, J. Hubsch and E. Ulsh, 1975. Do people have inflated views of their
own ability? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 31, 295-301.
Ross, M. and F. Sicoly, 1979. Egocentric biases in availability and attribution. Journal of Per-
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a psychological perspective. Accident Analysis and Prevention 10, 281-285.
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