Young driver’s car insurance can be very expensive, so the last thing many new drivers’ car insurance holders want is to lose their no claims bonus, and certainly not to be blamed for causing a crash through speeding when they weren’t actually doing so.
Being involved in a crash is bad enough, but if the police deem that an individual caused it by dangerous driving, the driver can be taken to court; sentencing can be strict and getting cheap young driver’s car insurance afterwards will be more difficult.
The psychology behind a witness’s memory of events
If such a case goes to court, leading questions in the first stages of proceedings are forbidden. A barrister can’t ask a witness, “How fast was the car going when it smashed into the other vehicle?”, or indeed, “How fast was the car going when it bumped into the other vehicle?”
The reasons behind the important difference between the two phrases noted above are psychological. Research by a psychologist in 1927, called Bird, found that people are generally not very good at estimating and reporting numerical details. By this he meant, time, distance and speed.
Later in 1969, another psychologist, Marshall, conducted a study which built upon Bird’s findings and revealed that when shown a car travelling at 12mph, participants in the study estimated the speed to be anything from 10 to 50mph – a serious difference, which might change a jury’s verdict.
Fillmore, in 1971, elaborated further on Marshall’s findings, showing that by using different words when describing a car crash viewed on a screen, participants could be influenced into saying that the vehicle had been driving at a faster or slower speed than it had. The words Fillmore interchanged were the verbs “hit” and “smashed”. “Hit” made people report lower speeds than the verb “smashed”.
Improving on the research even more, two psychologists in 1974, Elizabeth F. Loftus and John C. Palmer, found that not only could changing the verb in a sentence influence the estimated speed given by a participant, but also their memory of the event they had just been shown.
Loftus and Palmer asked their participants, “About how fast were the cars going when they [verbed] into each other?” with interchanging use of the words “smashed”, “collided”, “bumped”, “hit” and “contacted”. They found that the more dramatic verb, “smashed”, made the individuals estimate a car’s speed as higher and the verb, “contacted”, resulted in the lowest estimates.
The more dramatic sounding the description of the accident, the higher the people in the study thought the car had been moving.
Further, a second part to the study asked the participants, “Did you see any broken glass?” There was no broken glass in the film, but individuals who had received the verb “smashed” in their question, reported that, yes, they had seen broken glass. This showed that slight changes in questions regarding events could change a witness’s memory of an incident.
Of course, most young driver’s car insurance holders hope never to end up in court for any reason, but it is reassuring to know that the lack of leading questions during the first court session may makes a verdict fair.
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