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The neuroscience of 100 km an hour

Transport Minister Sibusiso Ndebele has started his campaign for reducing the speed limit on South African roads from 120 to 100 km an hour. In a recent poll conducted by a regional radio station, it became evident that motorists are against this proposed speed limit and are expressing their indignation. 

South African roads are notorious for high fatalities and not a day goes by without the news reporting the horrors caused by our driving abilities. In an attempt to make sense of the suggestions posed by Minister Ndebele and the reaction of the public I will discuss the neurological functioning of the human brain.  

Let’s start with the suggestion to lower the speed limit to 100 km an hour. Most South Africans are not good at keeping to the existing speed limits imposed by law and very often you will find public transport, in particular, violating more than one law at a time. There is a general culture of law evasion, and very little is done to enforce laws. The capacity of the South African police force and traffic law enforcement authority is not adequate to deal with  lawlessness. Consequently citizens of this country, who are seldom brought to book, have become immune to mere threats. Those citizens who are law-abiding are feeling a sense of frustration as not much is done to protect them from the lawless. Imposing another law that will once again be ignored will not go far towards creating a safer road system for all of us.  

So, what is this lawlessness all about? Those professionals who deal with behaviour change know sustainable change is built on new thinking and reconstructed mental maps. Unless we start to address the mental maps of lawlessness through proper education, nothing will change going forward. Behaviour is driven by how we think and if we believe that it is acceptable to ignore a speed limit, overtake on a solid line, drink while under the influence of alcohol and overload unroadworthy vehicles, all the laws in the land will not change the our behaviour. People’s minds are biased: they think the choices they make are correct, despite evidence to the contrary. This behaviour is referred to as cognitive dissonance.  

How are these mental maps created? The brain is an attention economy and young children are exposed to behaviours that support lawlessness. Travelling to school in a public transport vehicle and still getting there in one piece and on time is enough to create the belief that laws are there to be broken. Seeing your dad travelling at 130 km an hour and slowing down when the traffic officer comes into view is enough to show children that laws only apply when there is an officer of the law in sight.  It should then not be a surprise to us that those around us behave in the same manner.

How does this explain the reaction from the public? Marco Iacoboni has done extensive work on the brain’s ability to have empathy. In his work he addresses the fact that when someone appears to be in your ‘in group’ or you are able to find some form of relatedness with them, for example a group in which you feel there are similarities to you, you have the ability to imagine what they are thinking. You have empathy for them. In the event of someone being in your ‘out group’ you lose empathy and a ‘them and us’ scenario is created. This feeling of division generates a flight or fight response in the brain and we lose the ability to think rationally about our actions or thoughts. David Rock explains this phenomenon in his work based on the SCARF model (S-Status, C-Certainty, A-Autonomy, R-Relatedness and F-Fairness) in more detail and has concluded that a social threat, such as not having a sense of relatedness, will generate the same instinctive fight or flight reaction as a physical threat. The outcry from the public was based on two social threats that activated a fight or flight response – the first being the sense of non-relatedness with public transport drivers, even though it is the general tendency of drivers in South Africa to break the law as described above. The second threat is based on a sense of being unfairly treated based on the public transport drivers’ habits. Both these threats generated a state of anger towards the new law and many people felt a sense of ‘here we go again’. 

So what is to be done? Unless the South African government can pull together and start to create new mental maps and belief systems that support law-abiding behaviour, nothing will change. The citizens of South Africa will constantly be in the fight or flight state and will keep breaking the law either aggressively or passively. Another solution could be to address the cognitive dissonance of a feeling, behaviour or thought in order to create alignment between thoughts and actual behaviours.  In the presence of cognitive dissonance, individuals lose the ability to reflect on their own inconsistent behaviours and thoughts, and predict incorrectly that particular experiences and expectations are aligned. Everyone travels at 140 km an hour, so it must be safe to do so. Changing this dissonance requires a change in attitudes, mental maps and belief systems. 

Mary-Joe Emde is CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group. USB-ED and the NeuroLeadership Group have established a partnership that integrates neuroleadership and brain-based coaching into leadership development.

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