Traffic Psychology: “Dealing with frustration is very demanding”

Nicole Eugster’s clients have only one thing on their minds – getting their driving licences back. The psychologist’s task is to establish whether or not they are fit to drive in an in-depth expert assessment.

“Do you understand why you are here today?” is Nicole Eugster’s opening question. Sitting opposite the psychologist is Julien (editor’s note: not his real name). The young man lost his provisional driving licence for exceeding the speed limit on a number of occasions. Losing his licence meant he lost his job and found himself at the start of a “slippery slope”, as he puts it. “Quite honestly, I don’t know why I’m here. But I have to attend, so I’ve come”, he instantly replies. Nicole Eugster has often experienced this type of conversation at the “Institut d’action et de développement en psychologie du trafic” (Institute for Action and Development in Traffic Psychology) in Yverdon. A psychologist specialised in traffic psychology, she carries out expert psychology assessments here that are commissioned by the authorities on the basis of the Road Traffic Act for cases where provisional driving licences have been cancelled or driving licences have been revoked on safety grounds or for preventative reasons.

The sessions take place in a very particular environment, simply owing to the scheme’s coercive element. “Traffic psychologists are often portrayed negatively. From the point when they start driving, young people who obtain their provisional licence dread failing the test three times and having to see the psychologist”, explains Nicole Eugster. This anxiety often continues afterwards.

“I’m not crazy, I don’t need to see a psychologist”, is what goes through the minds of many people when they lose their licence, and they are reluctant to undergo expert assessment. They turn up in the end and generally cooperate but have only one thing on their minds – being allowed to drive again. That is not necessarily the aim of the traffic psychologist.

“We ask them to be as open and honest as possible”, she reveals. Many nevertheless try to show themselves in the best possible light or play down what they have done by arguing that the situation was not that dangerous. “Some people are frightened that we will define them solely on the basis of the offences they have committed. They are sometimes so desperate to prove to us they have changed that they refuse to talk about their wrongdoing.” Such attitudes present a problem for the psychologist because when driving licences are withdrawn the aim is to evaluate whether the person has taken on board what they have done, understood the reasons that led them to commit the offence and to assess whether they have reflected on strategies to put in place to prevent them from reoffending. Talking about the offences is vital if this is to be achieved. “I try to understand the person and what makes them tick, and, in particular, to get them to discuss their weaknesses. I am not judging them or overplaying what they have done. I am trying to steer the conversation towards the resources and solutions that the person has available to deal with their problems.”

People who think external factors are always to blame and that they have simply lacked opportunities risk having a negative expert assessment. “Statistically we know that it is a question of habitual behaviour in most cases. While there are exceptions, most people who exceed the speed limit do not get caught breaking the law on just one occasion.”  

A 12-page expert assessment

Concentrating in front of the computer, Julien is undergoing the first part of the assessment. The psychologist has chosen a series of psychological tests, based on the offence committed, which he has to complete – an evaluation of particular personality traits, psychological stability, sense of responsibility and self-control etc. Cognitive capacity – including attention, concentration, responsiveness and perception – may also be evaluated in some cases.

In the second part of the assessment, Nicole Eugster will present the results of these tests to Julien and carry out an in-depth interview to assess his fitness for driving. The young man will have to persuade the psychologist that he has undertaken a certain degree of self-reflection and is now fit to drive again. After the interview, the psychologist will draw up a 12-page expert assessment in which she makes a recommendation to the administrative authorities. They make the final decision and notify the person whether or not they can resume driving. In the event of a negative outcome, the psychologist also sets out proposals for suitable measures to be taken. These may include group courses to be attended, such as those run by the Swiss Council for Accident Prevention (CAP), or individual treatment from a psychologist specialised in psychotherapy. 

Large-scale prevention

Soon after graduating in clinical psychology from the University of Geneva, Nicole Eugster chose to combine her expertise in mental activity and human behaviour with her interest in the law. After obtaining her degree, the psychologist specialised in legal psychology. She has also been working in the field of fitness evaluation for several years. She opened her legal expert assessment practice with two colleagues in Geneva in 2007. In 2011, she began working in traffic psychology without really knowing what to expect. “I was keen to broaden my knowledge in a new field. With my experience, I thought why not make a contribution and learn something in return.” What aspect does she like best? The meetings, as they are different every day. “I receive a file beforehand which allows me to form an initial impression of the person. However, this picture does not generally reflect reality”, indicates the psychologist. A simple loss of control on the road can have very different characteristics and repercussions. Was the driver injured? Did they injure anyone else? Were they under the influence of any substances? Were they stressed at that particular moment for personal reasons? While the psychologist’s case history focuses primarily on behaviour on the road, people also talk a lot about themselves and what they have experienced. “We deal with people with unusual life histories and those who may have never had any contact with a psychologist.” Nicole Eugster provides them with self-reflection techniques that do not only apply to driving but can also have a positive impact on their lifestyle in general. 

“Cars almost mean more than human relationships to some people”, comments the psychologist. Losing their driving licence can therefore have major social consequences, not least on personal relationships or at work. This evokes a great deal of anger and emotion. “That is one of the more complex aspects of the job”, points out Nicole Eugster. The expert assessments may involve high expectations and great pressure. “You have to be able to deal with distress but also with the frustration of these people. It is very demanding.” That is why supervision and peer consulting is so important. The 20 or so traffic psychologists who carry out expert assessments in French-speaking Switzerland meet regularly to discuss their practices and exchange views. A first meeting in French-speaking Switzerland will also take place at the beginning of the year between the experts and therapists specialised in traffic, of which there are currently still too few. Nicole Eugster believes that explaining her job both within and outside of her own profession is vitally important. “There is too little awareness of traffic psychology. However, there is huge potential for professionals who are not apprehensive about working in this rather unusual environment.”

Name: Nicole Eugster
Profession: FSP specialist in legal psychology and traffic psychology
Expertise: clinical training, analytical mind and ability to summarise, writing skills, ability not to judge and to deal with emotions and frustration.