Stop It!

Nimium boni est, cui nihil est mali—The good is mostly in the absence of bad
Quintus Ennius, Roman poet

Give yourself a 6 minutes 21 seconds break and watch this classic sketch from Bob Newhart. It’s all relevant to what follows. Enjoy and then read on.

What got me thinking about this was something I read in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book Antifragile (which I can’t recommend too highly, by the way) and which he had previously published in a Harvard Business Review article called The Six Mistakes Executives Make in Risk Management (October 2009). In a section of the book called Via Negativa, the negative way, Taleb points out that not doing what is bad can produce better results than doing what is good. As an example, he says “telling people not to smoke seems to be the greatest medical contribution of the last sixty years.”

Druin Burch, a practising physician, writes in his excellent history of the practice of medicine Taking the Medicine, “The harmful effects of smoking are roughly equivalent to the combined good ones of every medical intervention developed since the war… Getting rid of smoking provides more benefit than being able to cure people of every possible type of cancer.”

It’s not in the least bit far-fetched to claim that many of the common ills of modern life can be prevented or cured simply by stopping some behaviour, smoking being just one of them.

Of course, a little guidance about suitable alternative behaviours wouldn’t be amiss; it’s naïve to assume that people who stop performing a destructive behaviour will naturally replace it with a constructive one. For example, someone who stopped smoking and then started shooting up heroin wouldn’t have improved his chances of survival. Nevertheless, stopping the destructive behaviour is the first step.

It’s no different with driver behaviour. You were wondering when I would stop rambling about health and get down to business, weren’t you?

What could drivers stop doing?

Drivers could make themselves many times safer and much less stressed if they would simply stop engaging in stupid practices.

For example, they could stop distracting themselves with all sorts of peripheral, unnecessary and, usually, trivial activities and just focus on driving the car.

They could stop driving so damned close to other vehicles—you don’t have to be Einstein to figure out that every collision between vehicles occurs after the vehicles get into close proximity.

And they could stop making decisions on the basis that they can “just about make it,” instead of “make it comfortably or don’t attempt it at all.”

What could businesses stop doing?

Businesses that want to reduce costs, improve productivity and enhance the well-being of their drivers could stop doing anything that undermines appropriate driver behaviour.

For example, they could:

  • stop imposing unrealistic schedules;
  • stop rewarding results that require unsafe behaviour to achieve;
  • stop expecting drivers to perform work tasks, such as communicating with the office, when they’re supposed to be driving;
  • stop leaving drivers in the dark about what standards of behaviour are expected of them;
  • stop tolerating a lower standard of professionalism in driving than in other work roles.

Magic pills

If I might be permitted to swing back to health for just a moment…

Financially, the big players in the “health” (i.e. sickness) industry are the pharmaceutical companies. They’re the last people to tell the public to stop doing something that is harmful to their health. There’s no money in that.

They would much rather see people continue with their destructive behaviours and then sell them a product that purports to relieve the resultant condition. They even invent conditions that nobody ever knew about, worried about or suffered from in the past, just so they can sell you the blasted cure!

We see something similar with the road-risk management service industry (although it’s a tiny minnow compared with the great white shark of Big Pharma). They offer products and services to business fleets as magic pills to cure a bunch of nasty conditions. And, just as many people find when they buy a box of pills rather than desisting from their destructive behaviours, if fleet customers buy these “solutions” but don’t also stop all of their harmful, hindering or counter-productive activities, they’re going to be disappointed with the results.

So the moral of the story is: before you go looking for magic pills identify all of the things that the business, the managers and the drivers really shouldn’t be doing. And just stop.

Sorry, what was that, Dr Switzer?


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