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How Driving Habits Work: How to Create Good, Strong Driving Habits for Your Students – Part 1

Welcome to BesideTheWheel’s first featured article!

To kick off our journey, what better place to start than the buzziest buzzword in driver education … habit.

If there’s a holy grail in driver education, it’s good driving habits. They’re the key to lasting safe practices behind the wheel; yet they’re often the most difficult and time-consuming lessons our students may never actually learn.

It seems like it should be simple: demonstrate proper procedures, practice, practice, practice, and use it on the road forever after. Right? 

Yes and no. That’s definitely part of the dance, but there are a few key steps missing. And once you learn what they are, you’ll feel like you just cracked the Da Vinci Code with Tom Hanks (at least that’s how I feel … maybe I should start going to the movies again). Plus, building good, strong driving habits will become one of the most powerful instruments in your teaching tool-bag.

To do this topic justice, I’ve decided to break it up into a three-part series. In this first installment, we’re going to cover what driving habits really are (you might be surprised) and how they form naturally. In the next installment, we’ll talk about how to create specific habits on the roadway – that is, how to start off on the right foot and keep walking (I mean driving) in the right direction. And, in the final installment, we’ll talk about the always daunting task of correcting bad habits.


The Mechanics of Driving Habits

Ask any student driver to make a list of “good driving habits” and it will probably look something like this:

               Obey the speed limit

               Check the blind-spot

               Use turn signals

               Check the mirrors

               Wear a safety belt

               Maintain a 2-second following distance


All of which are great things to do as a driver, and implementing them properly will make one safer behind the wheel. But how often do we teach these behaviors to our students only to see them in a defensive driving class a year later? There’s no denying that some students don’t make the effort to incorporate these actions into their driving habits, but some do make the effort and still find themselves asking a judge for permission to take a refresher course.

The problem here is that the items on this list are not good habits. They’re good behaviors. And, although it’s true that repeated behaviors eventually become habits, whether good behaviors become good habits is all about how those habits are formed.

In the next installment of this series, we’ll discuss how to form good habits on the roadway and (more importantly) how you as an instructor can facilitate this process during lessons. But, before we start meddling with the habit formation process for the greater good, I want to take a look at what we’re meddling with.

A habit is a particular behavior that an individual consistently exhibits in a certain context. It’s how a person automatically reacts to a specific situation – often unconsciously.

For instance, when I see a red traffic light at an intersection, I apply the brakes. I don’t think, I just do. In fact, the older I get the more frequently I find myself stopped at a red light without memory of applying the brakes or that I witnessed the light turn red in the first place. So, either I have habituated that behavior to unconscious automaticity or I should really make a note to talk to my doctor about early onset whatever it’s called when you can’t remember things anymore.

In a simpler time, long forgotten (the 1990s), researchers at MIT set out to discover the truth about habitual behavior. Though there have been advancements in the research since which have enriched and diversified the scientific understanding of habits, the basic formula discovered then is as relevant today as Napster, Walkmans, and The Real World could only dream to be.

According to the research, every habit has three general components: a cue, a behavior, and a reward. Let’s look at each component.



As I mentioned earlier, behavior and habit are not quite the same thing. A habit is a special type of behavior. One that is regularly repeated and often unconscious.

Colloquially, we tend to name our habits by their behaviors because the behavior is the part of the habit that we actually do. Just the other day, I accused the man in my bathroom mirror of having “a little midnight snacking habit.”

Because it always materializes in the real world, the behavior is also the element of a habit that is easiest to recognize. As we’ll soon discuss, the other two components function primarily within the brain and almost always go unrecognized until a concentrated effort is made to decipher what they are.



A cue is a specific event or aspect common to similar situations that serves as the definite point of contact between the situation and the behavior. In the example above, the cue my brain uses is the red traffic light itself.

Without a cue, trying to form a habit out of a behavior is a lot like trying to connect the dots between a dot and an equation. My brain needs an explicit signal that serves as the trigger for an established thought/behavior pattern. Otherwise, my brain must take time to consider what action is appropriate given the many factors in varying circumstances. In other words, my brain would have to create a whole new thought/behavior pattern each time.



Every habit I have ever picked up is a reliable means to an end – even the bad ones. That’s why my brain created them. Habits don’t just form out of the blue. My brain knows that if I want the same result from this situation that I achieved in a previous similar situation, it is easiest to repeat the same behavior that achieved that previous result.

What tells my brain that I want the same result is the good feeling I get from that result. Like every human, my brain naturally seeks good feelings and avoids bad feelings. So, instinctively, whenever I come across a behavior that results in good feelings, my brain remembers that behavior and repeats it whenever relevant in the hope of achieving good feelings. In the same way, my brain also tends to remember and repeat behaviors that result in the avoidance of bad feelings.

Save for the few times I have experienced equipment failure, applying the brakes in response to a red traffic light has consistently produced desired results. No traffic citations. No collisions. No problems.

In this case, I avoid bad feelings – and knowing that makes me feel good. It’s a two-for-one deal.

Good feelings are my brain’s reward for achieving desired results. If I don’t get that reward from a particular behavior, my brain has no reason to repeat that behavior in the next similar situation. In fact, I may have incentive to avoid repeating it.

My brain has learned and trusted, through repetition, that if I apply the brakes in response to a red traffic light then I will have good feelings. Probably because I first learned that if I don’t apply the brakes in response to a red light then I will have bad feelings.

This is ultimately what forms a habit – the consistent experience of good feelings in response to the achievement of desired results through the repetition of a particular behavior across recurring similar situations.

No reward means no repeated behavior … which means no habit formation.


And So, A Habit is Formed

The first time I applied the brakes in response to a red traffic light I had good feelings. At that moment, my brain created a specific neural pattern that begins with “red traffic light” and ends with good feelings with applying the brakes as the means to the end.

Every time I successfully approach a red traffic light with that same thought/behavior pattern, that connection is validated and strengthened. After countless successful experiences, the pattern is so trusted and entrenched in my neural pathways that my brain no longer needs nor wants to devote conscious energy to the activation and completion of that particular circuit.

Those are the mechanics of habit formation in a nutshell. Next week, we’ll continue this topic with the really good stuff: how to use habit formation mechanics to facilitate the development of good driving habits in your students.

See you next week!



Get the book that inspired this post!




How Habits Work


1 thought on “How Driving Habits Work: How to Create Good, Strong Driving Habits for Your Students – Part 1

  1. […] So, the best way to address this issue overall is to focus on building a strong habit out of constantly scanning the big picture. For more information on building strong habits, check out our recent series on driving habits. […]

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