The Choices We Make When Driving

Like many terms, the word “choice” is used so often that its meaning has dulled over time. “Choice” sounds appealing because it implies that we exercise free will, we have options, and no one can force us to do what we don’t want to do.

When we are driving, making the “right” choice is often portrayed as a virtuous act of intelligence and moral character, while choosing the “wrong” path suggests a lack of integrity. Choose to have “just one more” and you might go to prison if you kill someone while driving drunk. Choose to drive at excessive speed or text whilst driving and you can expect to get pulled over and given penalty points and a fine. 

But, if you resist all these bad (obviously!) choices, you’re on moral high ground, a better person.

Or are you? 

What’s really motivating you? The penalties and their consequences? Or your core value system?

In the 1960s, the American psychiatrist William Glasser pioneered a behavioral methodology called Choice Theory. It encompasses many concepts, but five of its foundational principles are especially useful:

  • All human behavior is driven by five primal needs—love and belonging, survival, power (ego), fun, and freedom.

  • To satisfy these needs, we build “Quality Worlds” that are based on our notions of what’s ideal; then we compare and mold our perceived real world into our Quality World to get more of what we want.

  • The only behavior we can truly control is our own—no one else’s.

  • Our behavior consists only of acting, thinking, feeling, and physiology. Of the four, we only control the acting and thinking functions.

  • While our past does profoundly affect us, it does not dictate or excuse our current behavior. All we need to pay attention to is what is happening now.

In his 1998 book Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom, Glasser devotes a chapter to choice theory as applied in the workplace. He discusses the traditional approach where managers demand and expect employee compliance through fear, competition, disciplinary measures etc.

In this model, employees are rarely granted meaningful input as to how they can do their jobs better or how their employer could support them. They get on with the 9 to 5 for a paycheck; the work doesn’t align with their core values, so they have little or no incentive to deliver high levels of performance. 

This approach of low engagement and low output, ruled by disciplinary procedures, feeds into a vicious feedback loop with little hope for improvement.

It hurts the organisation too, especially when professional drivers are employed, because a professional driver knows they can get another job the next day at the fleet operator down the road. The disciplinary approach can therefore lack teeth.

If you’re a safety manager of any kind, compliance is an ever-nagging issue. Vehicle telematics, cameras, driver monitoring technology, safety training programs—employees often view them with suspicion and defensiveness. They don’t trust me. Why are they telling me how to do my job? They just want to pick on me. Why don’t they go after so-and-so instead—he’s the one they shouldn’t let on the road with a company car.

Safety is an especially tough sell because driving is one of the few daily activities where you can be relatively careless and often get away with it.

How do you motivate employees to be safer when they don’t see what the big deal is? And if they follow, say, speed limits just because they might get a speeding penalty but their core attitude toward speeding doesn’t change, the symptom is being treated but not the cause.

Driving involves hundreds of choices on any given trip. Some are big, like the route you’ll take, or whether you’ll answer that call while behind the wheel, or whether you’ll take that much needed break. Others are smaller, like the speed at which you’ll travel near that school, or whether you’ll try to make that risky turn on an amber traffic light.

But, how can companies best support their employees in making good choices whilst driving for work purposes?  It’s not enough just to penalise them for poor choices.  Understanding what is affecting the behaviour of the driver is critical, that’s what influences the choices they make behind the wheel. Building a culture of making the “right” choice links intrinsically with building a culture of accountability.

To build that culture, the employees behind the wheel and those who manage them have their part to play and the health and safety professional has a significant contribution to make.

Consider the following steps:

  • Set out the values of your organisation in respect of driving at work standards. 

  • Consider your driving workforce in terms of their age, their life style and their values. Their life outside work can introduce pain points that significantly affect the choices they are making when driving for work. This can be due to fatigue and distraction and their age can influence these key contributors to vehicle collisions.

  • Introduce goals that give clear actions for the individual and link the goals to those of their team, their department and the organisation as a whole. The goals should reflect the values of the individual through to the values of the organisation in respect of driving at work activities.

  • Give individuals clear responsibilities that link to those goals.  Those employees who don’t drive for work still have their part to play and their choices can positively and negatively affect the behaviour of those on the road. For example, if office staff know a colleague is driving, they should choose not to try to call them.

  • The responsibilities and goals should give leeway, this will allow choices to be made by individuals and local managers that best suit local circumstances such as driving conditions, particular journeys to fulfil contracts etc.

  • If an employee makes the wrong choice, if they have a collision whilst driving, try to educate them and make them a better driver. Give them the insight into what they did wrong and how they can improve. It’s a much more positive approach that simply using disciplinary procedures as fear doesn’t grow a culture of accountability.

  • Give feedback to team members at all levels. The feedback should be positive or negative as appropriate, but people need to know that their choices, and their behaviours, are being noted and acknowledged. 

  • This leads to the organisation revisiting those responsibilities. Are they being met? If not, individuals need to be held to account, and given a path to improved performance. This approach gives trust in the management process and improves the choices made in respect of driving.

In building this effective driving safety culture, it’s worth exploring the Glasser’s Choice Theory principles stated earlier and consider their ramifications:


  • Recognise that our primal needs are sometimes at odds with each other—and at odds with our ability to drive safely. Feeling a sense of accountability for our choices can help to reprioritise those needs.

  • We downplay the risks of the real world (such as speeding and using a smartphone) because they don’t fit into our notion of a Quality World (we’d rather speed to get somewhere on time or check a smartphone to see the latest post from a friend).

  • Most things are out of our control, but we really always can control our own behaviour—meaning how we think and act whilst driving.

  • It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve shown poor driving performance in the past—what matters is how we behave behind the wheel on our next journey, taking responsibility in the present, and accountability for our choices.

Remember, it’s not just employees—companies and managers have choices too.

With thanks to Mi Ae Lipe for her significant contribution to this article, especially around the subject of Glasser's principles.

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