On the day after July 4th, at around 8:00 pm, 37-year-old Antonio Baldomero from Miami, Florida, knowingly drove his 18-wheeler past the variety of lights, signs, and warnings that forbade him to navigate his rig up Vermont Route 108, over Smuggler's Notch.
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He read the signs, including the ones that make it abundantly clear that it is physically impossible for a tractor-trailer to make it through the skinny, winding road with giant boulders as guard rails. Ultimately, like every big rig before him, Baldomero would wedge the unit on a Route 108 corner, halting traffic in both directions, commencing an hours-long process of extracting the truck, and costing him thousands of dollars in fines and towing fees.
Baldomero is one of many truck drivers who make the same bad decision every year to the point trucks stuck in the notch are a running joke, except it's not very funny if you're stuck on 108 when it happens.
Why does this keep happening?
Vermonters often express their bewilderment at how truckers could not see all those warning signs prohibiting them from entering the notch, but the truth is they see the warnings very clearly.
"In all my years of service," he said, "no one has ever told me they didn't see the signs," Vermont State Trooper told Compass Vermont in July of 2021.
Nevertheless, they choose to ignore them and push on, and it has to do with the psychology behind how we make decisions. Here are some of the primary reasons.
"Google said to take this route, so I'm taking it," aka "anchoring bias.
Psychology author Kendra Cherry says that when people are trying to make a decision, they often use an anchor or focal point as a reference or starting point. However, psychologists have found that people tend to rely too heavily on the first piece of information they learn, which can seriously impact their decisions.
Truck drivers leave their previous destination with the address of their next stop plugged into their GPS, at which point the route the computer provides them becomes somewhat of a gospel. If Google (or another navigation system) tells them "this is the way to go," how could they be wrong? Ironically, most motorists who drive regularly know that Google is wrong quite often.
"I've taken this rig down Colorado's Million Dollar Highway; the Notch can't be worse than that," aka cognitive bias.
According to the publication Inquiries, our decision-making process is influenced by cognitive biases. For example, we rely on or give too much credit to our previous knowledge and experiences. This results in us dismissing information or observations we perceive as uncertain, ignoring the bigger picture. Upon entering the notch, the road ahead doesn't look that bad, and maybe the locals here just don't like trucks.
"I'll save four hours by going through the Notch," aka poor comparisons.
Have you ever driven 20 miles out of your way to save ten bucks on purchase only to get to the store and find it closed? Comparison is one tool people use when making decisions, and poor comparisons happen when we don't consider the consequences of the wrong decision. Truckers are correct that they can save a lot of time getting to their destination by going over the Notch, but only if they can fit their truck through the Notch, which they can't.
"I've come this far; I'm not turning back now," aka escalating commitment.
In January of 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 prepared to take off from Washington National Airport en route to Fort Lauderdale in a snowstorm. The pilot, who had failed to turn on the ice protection systems, pushed the throttle forward and barrelled down the runway for takeoff.
The copilot detected ice and snow buildup on the wings and informed the pilot that there was an issue that might keep the plane from being able to become airborne in time. The pilot heard the copilot clearly but kept going anyway. The plane crashed into the 14th Street Bridge, killing all but four passengers and one flight attendant.
The takeaway: if a highly trained pilot can make himself believe that he can fly a plane covered in ice and snow, it is not hard to understand how a truck driver decides that he or she will be the first one to pass through Smuggler's Notch.