Cognitive Load Theory and Driver Education

Today I drove to Bournville, Birmingham, and back to attend #rEDBrum. So did most people there – big deal. However, I am a learner driver (my mum was accompanying me, don’t worry) and it occurred to me as I left a roundabout where, as I’d first pulled out, a car had approached very quickly from the right and I had panicked that I wasn’t going to be able to build speed quickly enough and stopped in the middle of the roundabout, that maybe driver education could benefit from some of the theories and concepts researchED speakers were presenting.

The thing is that driving, especially driving a manual (or stick-shift to Americans), is a very complicated skill. Just to get the thing moving you need to focus on carefully balancing the clutch and the accelerator and releasing the handbrake at the right time, and then not releasing the clutch too quickly. Add to that the fact that learning to drive takes place on the roads (albeit very quiet ones) from the very beginning, and alongside all that you have to remember your six-point observations, mirror-signal-manoeuvre and keep an eye out for cars approaching as you emerge, while steering the car away from the curb but not so far that you cross onto the other side of the road – and you’ll probably have to negotiate cars parked in front of you too. If you want to try that all again, you first have to – at the very least – pull back up at the kerbside, but you’ll probably do a bit of driving first, which will give you a load more things to remember (changing gear, etc.).

Now consider this:

It’s your first driving lesson. You are sitting in a car in a wide, open, flat, tarmacked area. There may be some other first-timers in cars around, but they’re all facing the same way as you and a reasonable way away, none directly in front an behind, and you’re all just going to be going in straight lines, so you don’t need to worry about them. You all have headsets on, or speakers in the car maybe, so you can hear the teacher. The teacher talks you through the process for pulling away step-by-step – just the things you need to do to get the car going – and what you need to do to stop, but only in the most basic terms – you’re not worried about smoothness at this point. You all have a go. Some of you – most of you perhaps – may well stall on the first attempt, but that’s fine. You have the time and space for as many attempts as you need, a bit of trial and error, without having to worry that you might be about to get in someone’s way. And even once you’ve done it successfully, you can try again and again. Pull away, forward a few metres, stop. Pull away, forward a few metres, stop. All you have to worry about is starting and stopping.

Gradually more things can be introduced. Going forward a bit more, building a little speed, changing up to second gear, turning the car through ninety degrees. You could move onto a simulation road, practise responding to traffic signs and road markings. You could have other cars – driven by driving school staff who obey all the rules of the road – driving on this road so you can practise meeting traffic, overtaking, right of way. If you want to save on costs, this part could even be done in part or in whole through computer simulations, complementing the time spent in an actual car. This way, by the time you’re actually on the road, with people doing potentially unpredictable – or even illegal – things, you are far beyond the point of having to consciously think about how to pull up or emerge smoothly or change gear.

Something like this is already used in Japan and I’m sure would make learning to drive easier – and less scary – for learners, more effective and, perhaps most importantly, safer for everyone.

Our working memory can only hold up to, by the most generous estimates, seven new pieces of information at once. Most people seem to say about four or five. If we return to the processes required to get a car moving:

  1. depress the clutch
  2. put the car into first gear
  3. set the revs
  4. identify the biting point
  5. release the handbrake
  6. release the clutch slowly

That’s six new things to concentrate on already. Put it into the context of a real road, as it is in a normal first driving lesson and it looks more like this:

  1. depress the clutch
  2. put the car into first gear
  3. six-point observations
  4. set the revs
  5. identify the biting point
  6. check mirrors
  7. signal
  8. release the handbrake
  9. release the clutch slowly
  10. steer away from the curb/around cars parked in front
  11. take up normal driving position

– and really, some of those things should be done simultaneously.

By allowing those first six to be practised specifically to the point of automaticity in a safe and controlled environment before introducing additional elements – mirrors and signalling, other road users – learner drivers can reach a higher level of confidence with less pressure and without risk. This means that by the time they do have to face other potentially unpredictable road users, they have confidence in their driving ability and can deal with the specific issue at hand. No more panicking you can’t pull away quickly enough and stalling across a busy carriageway! (I haven’t actually done this, but it is my greatest fear.)

My mum suggested I open a driving school of my own, but unfortunately, I have no real passion for driver education beyond getting my own driving licence. Anyone who does have such a passion is welcome to take as much of this idea as they wish and run with it. I am, however, totally open to input on this and taking the conversation further.

Other related reading:
The section on Cognitive Load Theory in this post by Clare Sealy

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