Were You Born to Ride … the Bus?

A recent study indicates 30 percent of the population has a genetic variant that may contribute to bad driving. Bummer, I guess if you have it, you’re doomed to accidents and tickets for the rest of your life. Don't become a rider or racer, you can't possibly hit the big time so learn the bus routes and take up golf, ...

People with a particular gene variant performed more than 20 percent worse on a driving test than people without it - and a follow-up test a few days later yielded similar results.

They were asked to drive 15 laps on a simulator that required them to learn the nuances of a track programmed to have difficult curves and turns. Researchers recorded how well they stayed on the course over time. Four days later, the test was repeated.

Results showed that people with the variant did worse on both tests than the other participants, and they remembered less the second time.

Hmm, ... let's think about that.

Studies like these bother me because of the conclusions people draw from the data. A study, like the one above, indicating a genetic cause of less potential for performing well at a task like driving can be misinterpreted even if the findings are accurate because life is not a controlled experiment. Life is messy, challenging and unpredictable.

Even in the case of a simple task like driving, the difference in performance between two individuals outside the lab is more often related to attitude, desire, commitment and good old fashioned hard work than it is to some preexisting potential. Potentials are not absolutes; low potential does not preordain failure nor does high potential guarantee success. Really wanting to be a better driver can influence how much effort you put into it while others may not care.

Does it really matter how much potential a person has if they perform at a high level? If you learn in advance what your potential is supposed to be, you might not try something where you would do very well, or conversely, feel you could do something quite easily yet never put in any effort to find out. Saying you could means nothing, actually doing it counts.

Differences in potential do exist. If you work really hard, are you going to ride like Rossi or Spies? Highly doubtful. They have potential you and I don't, but they still have to work really hard because Stoner and Haga have a lot of it, too.

There's a big difference between the people featured on The Kneeslider because they actually completed a project and critics who inevitably show up in the comments saying they could do better if they wanted to, ... even though they never do. Performance is what counts.

If you find, according to some test, you don't have the potential to perform well in some activity, if you have your heart set on it, ignore the experts and try anyway. You don't need anyone's permission to excel. On the other hand, don't expect the rules to be changed or standards softened to give you a head start. If you can't do the job, no matter what the reason, you can learn more, work harder and try again, but, if you still fall short, don't complain about the rules or standards. Something else might be a better fit for your particular skills and abilities.

The bottom line is simple, for the vast majority of us, in almost any area of endeavor, what you do with what you've got is far more important than what you start with. If you want to race, head over to the track, sign up and give it a try. Do you think you could build a custom motorcycle or start a motorcycle company? There's only one sure way to find out. We get one shot at life, don't let someone else tell you what you can't do and should not try. If you think you can, don't say so, just do it.

Link: UC Irvine via FuturePundit


  1. stu says

    Probably the first step towards insurance companies requiring genetic data before offering you a policy.

  2. Kenny says

    Hahah! Reminds me of the saying “Practice makes perfect, but if nobody’s perfect…Why practice?”

    Seriously though using a driving simulator to test driving aptitude based on lap times is not a valid scientific claim.
    I would consider a racing game more akin to tetris than actual driving.
    If they brought up the driving histories of said people and compared them to another group with different genes, then I might take notice.
    As to the subject of there being a genetic predisposition to driving, I would say there is.
    My guesses being faster reaction times, excellent spatial awareness, maybe single mindedness or focus in the case of racers

  3. Thure says

    This study shows that statistically people with a gene variant did on average 20% worse on a complex (driving is not a simple task) task. Probably the best of the gene variant did better than the worst of the non gene variant, but when taken as an average of two different groups the gene variant group did worse. This is interesting and valid research that gives more insight into the genome and its effects on people in their daily lives.
    And yes, the conclusions ignorant people draw from statistics can be less than desirable especially when they but up against your desire for personal freedom (i.e. speed limits) Statistics and research are part of our daily lives and we would not be where we are today if we didn’t have them.
    It would be interesting with research that could show the effect of determination and hard work versus genetic potential and its effect on your personal success.

  4. Paulinator says


    This bothers me as a parent. We choose our partners based on hip-to-thigh ratio…the rest is chance.

  5. Dennis Grisez says

    This gets into some ugly discussions about genetic predispositions and where they might come from (ugly as Jimmy the Greek found out) but I’ve worked with enough performance driving and basic motorcycling (MSF) students to recognize that there are some who do and some who don’t have potential. They might be based on family income or education or attitude, but I’ve also worked with plenty of individuals who despite all the desire and hard work in the world just can’t drive a car at a high level or manage enough tasks to change gears while riding through a corner. We may not want to hear about it, but it’s entirely reasonable that genetics may help decide who to invest time and money into, and who might try other sports. That we survive on the highway doesn’t mean we’ve beaten genetics, it just might mean that we’ve learned not to place ourselves into situations where we can’t cope, or that we got lucky.

    I’m not good at hitting a golf ball. I’d be happy to learn that my genetics make me better at the skills involved in driving or riding or doing math or running or whatever than at striking a ball correctly.

  6. Richard Gozinya says

    A study involving only 29 people? That seems extremely small for anything conclusive. Sure, some people have natural gifts, but as Calvin Coolidge put it, nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.

  7. says

    Absolutely. I have the gene; I’m sure of it. When faced with the need to make lighting-fast decisions (Lay it over and try and make the turn, or stand it upright and grab both brakes?) my brain locks up, and I freeze. I also rely heavily on my neural pathways (that is, habitual conditioned reflexes) to deal with complex tasks with a great deal of stimuli to monitor.

    I once read that Eddie Lawson could switch between bikes with various shift patterns (a left-shift, one-down/four-up street bike to a right-shift, one-up/four-down race bike) and be instantly comfortable, having no problem making the transition. That amazed me, and caused me to believe me there was something intrinsically different between how his brain works and mine. It took me forever to be comfortable on my first right-side-shift bike (a BSA). After several months of riding it (exclusively, mind you) I still found myself trying to upshift by slipping my left boot under the brake lever.

  8. GenWaylaid says

    Or maybe “study finds that 30% of the population are crap at simulations.” I know that without the ability to balance and listen to the engine and the tires I would be a complete mess. My reflexes are good, but I can’t find the apex of a curve and remember what gear I’m in at the same time, and after years of riding that hasn’t gotten any better. I’m glad my brain stem’s good at riding, because everything above it is out to lunch.

  9. Art says

    A sample of 29 people? Doubtful this is even statistically significant enough to warrant funds for a further study, which is what most of these small sample tests are really about. Maybe the study authors should read Freakonomics before declaring genetics is the main cause of bad driving. I’d be willing to bet that with the proper instruction, even “genetically disadvantaged” drivers could be taught how to be sufficiently competent to not be a danger to others. Walking and speaking are also a very complex tasks, but pretty much everyone without major disabilities manages to figure these out. I won’t detail the left/right brain process/theories that allow humans to learn such tasks without “formal” teaching, but surely driving is no more complex than either walking or speaking.

    I am terrible at driving/navigating video games, and fail terribly even with something as realistic as Flight Simulator. (And I play guitar fairly well Guitar Hero is a mystery to me…) But does this matter given my real driving record of 35 years driving and 30 years riding with no at-fault collisions? And I managed to avoid all but a handful of the thousands of potential “accidents” I encountered on the street. Add in 8 years track riding without a single crash…

    I agree there are a small percentage of people who should never be issued licenses, but it is my observation this often has more to do with learning, cognitive or attitude issues rather than genetically determined capacities. There IS something to having a certain level of raw ability. Some of the smartest and most conscientious people I know who have held licenses for decades can’t (and never could) drive as well as my 17-year-old learner daughter. And they have the accident/ticket histories to match.

    Most of us will never win Gold at the Olympics or be on a World Series Champion team, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t participate in sports. The problem with driving is that incompetent drivers put others at significant risk. Combine incompetence with recklessness, poor work ethic (no inclination to continuously learn how to be a better driver) and a lack of situational awareness… BINGO… we have a dangerous driver.

    The driving instruction and testing regime needs to be able to identify people who have marginal ability. And no, the current fashion of graduated licenses and overly punitive speed and impaired penalties has not significantly lowered collision/fatality stats, so no joy there. Blaming some genetic “flaw” also won’t help anything besides insurance company profit margins.

  10. Hawk says

    I certainly can’t disagree with the fact that too much credence is being put on a very small study. At the same time, it begs more indepth investigation. We all have individual skills, as Paul points out. Some can be developed easily, others require much more effort and some are simply unattainable. No one was born being a concert pianist and, no matter how long I practised and studied, I doubt I’d ever master even the basic scales.

    When it comes to riding, driving, flying or any other such activity that requires those “special” skills, let’s look at MotoGP and F1. Almost every nationality and race of people are repesented in the riders/drivers. Aside from economic issues and, in no way am I suggesting anything “racist”, is there a genetic reason why some have never risen to the ranks of “the top ten?” I don’t know but I’d be interested to find out.

    The danger, as stu pointed out, is that statistics taken out of context could be used against us, like predisposing our driving abilities by insurance companies. I rather prefer our current system where we demonstrate our abilities to drive/ride within our personal limits ….. except, perhaps, when we get our first driver’s license and are considered a “crash looking for a place to happen.”

    Think of the money we could make if we only sold medical insurance to “healthy” people?

  11. Art says

    Sorry for the thread jack, but I think some important ideas have been put forward…
    @ Tashanomi and GenWayLaid- Your impressions are correct, riding properly should become as second nature as walking. You don’t consciously think about balancing, then lifting up each foot, putting it down, rolling from heel to toe, repeat for each step… You just “decide” where you want to walk to and the appropriate brain, neurological and muscle functions happen without conscious thought as to HOW we do it. We all forget how much practice it took us as infants is forgotten until something happens and we must re-learn how to walk. I’ve been told re-learning walking as an adult can be a very difficult, frustrating process. So why do we think learning to ride a bike or drive as adults should be easy or somehow “come naturally”.

    Learning the basic skills of riding, like most adult learning, is largely a left brain (logical. linear. verbal) exercise. Once the “basics” are sufficiently practiced, the right side and “muscle memory” (graphic, non-linear) takes over and you just “do it”. And each of us has to figure out for ourselves when we have had enough practice and can “trust” the right side of out brain to ‘just do it’. Put another way, if you are thinking about the mechanics of braking and countersteering while tipping into your favorite curve at 60 mph, you’re in trouble. You need to have practiced all the facets of turning at more manageable speeds long before that so they are nearly automatic, just like walking across the room.

    Again, sorry, back to bad drivers…

  12. says

    Ages ago I answered a Cycle World questionaire about safety and motorcycles, and put myself in the better 50 % of riders, though exclusively on account of my substantial riding experience. It has given me the ability to read traffic and foresee dangerous situations. Also, I am able to shift gears in corners, and can switch from foot clutch to Brit gear layout to Jap ditto without any trouble.

    Most riders I know have less experience than I have, but alas, most of them are better riders too. They cringe when they see me take yet another dumb line through a curve, or when I attack said curve at two-thirds the speed they’d be comfortable with. Then of course most of them have had more accidents than I have (5 in all, the last one 26 years ago; a dead branch fell from a tree and knocked me off), because the term ‘defensive driving’ is not part of their vocabulary.

    Methinks the 29-person survey probably is correct in suggesting that a certain percentage of drivers and riders are fairly inept at operating their vehicles. To what extent it makes them dangerous to themselves or to others in traffic, is a different matter.

  13. Dennis Grisez says

    I seem to be in the minority of opinion, and that’s probably because I am thinking about the last few percent of performance, not so much about just getting down the road safely. Of course most people can be trained to safely ride or drive successfully. And fortunately most people are rarely in a situation where exceptional skills are required. Despite the shockingly small sample size in the study, I still feel that this result confirms my suspicion that genetics, the way we’re wired, has a huge impact on whether we can ever hope to have the mastery of Rossi, Haga, Senna, Hamilton, etc.

    Given that: There are drivers who enter F1 seasons on the dollars they can bring to the team, not so much on their records. Those drivers are trained, motivated, provided with the best equipment, and still they can’t perform as well, at the limit, as their more talented competitors. Try as they may they can’t. And then it rains. And the differences really show.

    I think I’m a good performance rider and driver. I’m comfortable with sliding tires, late braking, catching mistakes, etc. I still can’t catch a coworker of mine who seems to work far less hard at going fast than I do. I’m 40, but he’s nearing 60 and isn’t slowing down. I’m convinced (and it makes me feel better to believe) that he’s genetically superior to me in this regard. I’m also sure there are other factors, but in the pure, innate, car control arena I feel that you just can’t train that sort of composure and skill.

    Of course we both get down the highway just fine!

  14. mark says

    More bad conclusions from poor statistics. Oh well.

    As an example, there was a Top Gear episode where Clarkson attempted to replicate
    his simulator laptimes around Laguna Seca in an NSX. He was not even close,
    something like 20s off. And he is a fairly skilful and experienced driver.

    All this study shows is some people are better at simulators. What they now need to
    do is corrolate this finding with real-world car driving. And have a much larger sample
    size. And not just use 1st year psych students as their sample population :)

  15. steve w says

    some people shouldn’t even get out of bed in the morning. As for driving I learned early. Slapped me in a Go Kart in 1959 at age 12 (this is the 50th anniverary of karting) and it only took one heat race to know I wanted to drive, Maybe more people ought to try that approach with anything motorised. Kinda like the grand daughter. Put her on her 50cc 4 wheeler at 3 and after hitting 2 trees she decided that it was a lot of fun. As for studies, probably need to look no further than those who create them.

  16. Jacquie says

    As a city bus driver of more than 18 years. I encourage people to ride the bus. Especially if I have seen them drive. I see people every day that should be on my bus. Male and female. The girl’s hips don’t seem to get in the way of their driving.

  17. Tom says

    If you’ve read the book “The Right Stuff”, you’ll remember the opening chapter about the group of young Navy test pilots who were flying experimental aircraft at the opening of the jet age. Their squadran suffered more losses than any other group of military test pilots. The one man in this group who really excelled at making correct snap decisions based on incomplete information in extraordinarily complex and critical situations – the “right stuff” – was Pete Conrad (later the third man to walk on the moon).

    So what ever happened to Conrad? He over cooked a turn on his motorcycle and was killed in the ensuing accident.

  18. Art says

    So we should just hope the bad drivers sort themselves out before they sort out too many of the rest of us? That’s the status quo and it ain’t working. If Darwin’s magic hasn’t worked its way through the gene pool in nearly 100 years, not likely to anytime soon.

    Only the most highly skilled, mature and situationally aware drivers/riders can consistently avoid bad drivers. But the fat part of the bell curve is filled with average competence drivers, which simply provides a mass of targets for bad drivers to cause collisions with.

    So I guess prospective parents will soon be pre-screening fetuses to be sure they don’t end up permanently chauffeuring little Johnny or Janey. Just kidding, but these days ya never know…

  19. Art says

    The US Military has a contracted MSF to run riding schools, and made the video “Semper Ride” in an attempt to stop their expensive-to -rain, hard-to-replace (remember ‘stop-loss’?) risk-taking personnel from killing themselves on bikes.


    So just because you can fly a plane or drive a tank doesn’t mean you’re “naturally” a good rider or that the laws of physics don’t apply to you.

  20. Nicolas says

    do as many test and statistics as you want, the proven truth is : a good rider is an old rider …

  21. Art says

    But an old rider (driver) isn’t necessarily a good rider (driver).

    I know several riders with decades of experience that have never been good riders, just lucky. And as they age further, traffic gets heavier and their panic reaction times get longer, they aren’t thinking about learning to be more skillful riders, just becoming more cautious as the “calls” get “closer” . You know the ones, the “I just lean ‘er in and will lay ‘er down if I have to” guys. They refuse to believe countersteering applies to them and their bike, and think too much front brake will put them over the bars on their UJM’s, tourers and cruisers.

    The driving equivalent is the market segment targeted by the Gray Power Insurance commercials. The old fart in a fedora or the granny that can’t see over the wheel, meandering down the road while the rest of us try to figure out what dumb maneuver they’ll pull next. But they have clear driving records and low insurance rates… chances are, when you have the old-person-shuffle, time to hand in your license, bike or car.

  22. James Bowman says

    Hmm well very interesting study, and as many have pointed out based on way to small of a data set to be taken very serious. However my observations in life generally agrees that there are those panic prone souls who can’t make snap decisions and become the proverbial deer in the head lights. I had remarkably avoided many almost certain accidents with snap correct decisions when I was younger, although now at 43 I am aware that there is less snap for sure.

    As far as driving goes I feel sometimes too much skill is almost as dangerous as not enough because like myself and others who are blessed with quick decision making skills we are most likely the ones who would always be pushing the limits just because its enjoyable and this probably explains awsome fighter pilots going off road and getting killed better than anything else. The reason I bought a 250cc motorcycle instead of a sport bike is because of the genetic defect I have that makes me have to know where the edge is and its a good thing to know ones own limitations ;o]

    I hope they do this study with a larger data group but as someone already mentioned a large part of the driving force behind studies is to justify funds for the next one and also seldom could they avouid being influenced by who is footing the bill and what their desires are. So take it all with a grain of salt.

  23. Oldyeller8 says

    For sure this is not good when a bunch of bureaucrats or insurance dweebs get a hold of this info but…
    It does point out a larger picture in that, first off – Driving / Riding is a privilege not a right. And that not everyone can or should be in / on a motorized vehicle. As an instructor of two-wheeled training I use to think that anyone could ride a bike. Now I understand that NOT everyone can or should ride a bike.

    As mentioned above ‘Let your performance prove your abilities’ But it should also be a little tougher to get said license, no matter what the application.

    A side note: Not having an accident or ticket in your driving/riding history doesn’t necessarily mean you are any good at it. It means you didn’t get caught. I do lots of miles and every day I see someone doing something that scares the c&@p out of me.

  24. Tin Man 2 says

    Oldyeller8,”Driving is a privilege not a right”. That statement sickens me. I have the God given right to do any thing I please as long as it doesnt hurt anyone else. The Government can not grant rights,only take them away. The Courts have preverted the constitution, making me the servant of the state, Instead of the other way around. Rant Over !!!

  25. says

    Tin Man; I don’t recall God being specific about the right to drive or ride a motor vehicle, even if you don’t hurt anyone doing so – but then maybe you have a better connection. If you drove home in a drunken stupor, without hurting anyone on the way, I’d feel safer if the government did something about it, rather than wait for divine interference (to mention but one example).

  26. Nicolas says

    I’d agree on the “privilege” statement, as to be able to drive or ride you should prove that you’re able to do so. If you have the “right” to drive, but at the same time you are not able to do so safely, then you should be kept out of the road. Therefore it’s a privilege.

    But Mr. Kneeslider is right, god and the government and the genetics and the chance/luck taken apart, a good rider/driver is somebody who is dispensing hard work and commitment and focus to his driving. Which are not popular concepts these days …

    Dang, when it’s not about HD, or global warming, it’s God vs Government … starts to be difficult ot have a motorcycle-related discussion around here …

  27. Art says

    Sorry, Oldyeller8, gotta disagree. “Getting away with it” may work on occasion, but the stats show that eventually bad driving, or being unable to avoid bad drivers, will catch up with you. To drive for decades without causing collisions and also not being involved in potential ones due to others’ bad driving is an indicator of above average driving skill and situational awareness.

    Neurological research is just starting to figure out little things like how a good baseball player’s brain/body finds it so easy to catch a fly ball without understanding any of the mathematics involved. We have a huge amount of built-in spatial and computational software that our progenitors used to stay alive. So I believe, if the proper approach is used and the right attitude present in the student, just about anyone that can walk and chew gum without constantly bumping into the furniture or biting their tongue can learn to drive, or ride a bike. Maybe not as fast as Schumacher, Rossi or Spies, but safely and with awareness and consideration for others sharing the road.

    That said, the driving/riding collision/fatality stats indicate we have been mostly doing it very wrong. Genetics has little to do with it.

  28. Bjorn says

    The study I would most like to see is what correlation exists between accident data, speeding fines and distance travelled.
    Do those who speed, consistantly find themselves over represented in accident statistics on a per kilometre basis?
    When will they find the gene for propensity to choose protective gear that looks as though the colours were choosen by a blind person?

  29. Art says

    Bjorn, not quite what you asked for, but along those lines of thought. Seems like another Freakonomics (why do crack dealers live with their mothers?) counter-intuitive result, one finding is lowering speed limits raised the number of collision injuries. But of course the self-appointed road safety lobby has been telling us for decades that speed is THE ONLY REAL issue (impaired driving aside).

    I will cede that driver incompetence and inattention, when combined with speed beyond that ability base IS the leading issue. But why beat on good drivers who can handle higher speeds and refuse to require higher skill and attentiveness levels from “average” drivers? Then wonder why the stats never improve?

    So until an unbiased and very competent statistician looks into general road safety and discovers the actual correlates, we will be presented with faulty analysis, bad. punitive legislation and stupid insurance rules. But of course, it’s our genes to blame. Riiiiggghhhttt.


    Don’t think anything will help with the gear colour issue tho’…

  30. Bob Nedoma says

    If driving (and riding) is a privilege, then according to the constitution, we all have the same right to that privilege. Remember? the: Life, Liberty and Pursuit of happiness (unles denied by the due process of law).
    And I don’t remember that anybody was “created” less than equal.