The ability to detect changing visual information is a vital component of safe driving. In addition to detecting changing visual information, drivers must also interpret its relevance to safety. Environmental changes considered to have high safety relevance will likely demand greater attention and more timely responses than those considered to have lower safety relevance. The aim of this study was to explore factors that are likely to influence perceptions of risk and safety regarding changing visual information in the driving environment. Factors explored were the environment in which the change occurs (i.e., urban vs. rural), the type of object that changes, and the driver’s age, experience, and risk sensitivity.
Sixty-three licensed drivers aged 18–70 years completed a hazard rating task, which required them to rate the perceived hazardousness of changing specific elements within urban and rural driving environments. Three attributes of potential hazards were systematically manipulated: the environment (urban, rural); the type of object changed (road sign, car, motorcycle, pedestrian, traffic light, animal, tree); and its inherent safety risk (low risk, high risk). Inherent safety risk was manipulated by either varying the object’s placement, on/near or away from the road, or altering an infrastructure element that would require a change to driver behavior. Participants also completed two driving-related risk perception tasks, rating their relative crash risk and perceived risk of aberrant driving behaviors.
Driver age was not significantly associated with hazard ratings, but individual differences in perceived risk of aberrant driving behaviors predicted hazard ratings, suggesting that general driving-related risk sensitivity plays a strong role in safety perception. In both urban and rural scenes, there were significant associations between hazard ratings and inherent safety risk, with low-risk changes perceived as consistently less hazardous than high-risk impact changes; however, the effect was larger for urban environments. There were also effects of object type, with certain objects rated as consistently more safety relevant. In urban scenes, changes involving pedestrians were rated significantly more hazardous than all other objects, and in rural scenes, changes involving animals were rated as significantly more hazardous. Notably, hazard ratings were found to be higher in urban compared with rural driving environments, even when changes were matched between environments.
This study demonstrates that drivers perceive rural roads as less risky than urban roads, even when similar scenarios occur in both environments. Age did not affect hazard ratings. Instead, the findings suggest that the assessment of risk posed by hazards is influenced more by individual differences in risk sensitivity. This highlights the need for driver education to account for appraisal of hazards’ risk and relevance, in addition to hazard detection, when considering factors that promote road safety.