A recent conversation illuminated how people can perceive the risk involved in their decisions and actions very differently than others do. The subject was driving skills, but it could just as well have been backcountry travel. I’ll paraphrase the conversation, and I have slightly altered and exaggerated some details in the interest of making a point.
The conversation was prompted by a comment that a friend wouldn’t have to speed on her morning commute if she left home 15 minutes earlier. She offered a spirited defense of her driving. “Speed limits are suggestions. There’s no need to drive less than 5 mph over the speed limit if there’s no inclement weather. People that drive less than the speed limit are dangerous.”
Her audience wasn’t buying it, so she escalated her defense. “I’m a good driver. I’ve only had one wreck. And that was because of black ice.” The car incurred damages of $10000, but she only paid the deductible, so it didn’t count as a serious accident in her mind. “And two tickets.”, she added.
It came out that she’d only learned to drive in 2009. A listener pointed out that three incidents in five years was a pretty high rate of getting into trouble. She argued that the second ticket shouldn’t count, as she was speeding to pass a semi. “Don’t you think that driving next to a semi is unsafe?” she asked the trooper. She threw in that it was her birthday, but he gave her a ticket anyway. “I couldn’t flirt my way out of it, like I had other times.” The “other times” were three more traffic stops in which she hadn’t gotten a ticket. That meant a rate of more than one incident for each year of driving.
“That’s not bad. I’m a good driver.” Someone noted that some people go their whole lives without a ticket or an accident. “They’re probably the people going 10 mph below the speed limit and making it dangerous for everyone else.”
She then told a story about driving 100 mph on I-70 in a borrowed Audi because the car is designed to hold the road better at high speeds. She offered to drive anyone home. There were no takers.
My friend seemed to feel that deft car-handling skills equate to safety. Many of her defenses sound familiar; I’ve heard similar sentiments in conversations about skiing and riding in the backcountry. Somehow, the unintentionally-triggered slides and the near misses don’t count because of some circumstance specific to that incident. They become confirmation of skills rather than lessons. An avalanche flank 15 feet from your track isn’t a close call; it’s proof you knew how to pick your line. Flawed conclusions like that are easy to draw in a wicked environment like the backcountry, where irregular feedback promotes learning the wrong lessons from our experiences, and encourages an illusion of skill.
I don’t know whether my friend drives as recklessly as she sounded in that conversation. Nor the balance of over-confidence and expertise of anyone I meet in the backcountry. I do know I aim to second-guess my own claims to expertise and skill. I try to imagine what they’d sound like out of context, after an accident perhaps. Andre Roch ‘s famous quote, purportedly made after one of his own near-misses, applies here: “The avalanche doesn’t know that you are an expert.” It’s the quality of situation-specific decisions that matters. And every close call counts. The backcountry doesn’t offer a good-driver discount.