Like this site? Help us to make it better.

Britons have in-built acceptance of driving's dangers, study suggests

Researchers fear the systematic bias — "motonormativity" — might have infiltrated policy making in government and the medical profession...

A study has shown that people tend to view driving-related dangers differently to if they were caused by something other than cars.

The latest research by Dr Ian Walker, an environmental psychology professor at Swansea University, found that British people are more accepting of issues and dangers caused by motor vehicles that they otherwise would not be accepting of elsewhere.

Describing the attitude as "motonomativity", in the paper 'Motonomativity: How Social Norms Hide a Major Public Health Hazard', Walker along with co-authors Alan Tapp and Adrian Davis suggest that the "motonormative thought style is as endemic amongst government and the medical profession as in the general population", with potential implications for policy.

> Why aren't more people cycling and walking when fuel prices are at record highs? We talk to Dr Ian Walker on the Podcast

By randomly assigning a pool of 2,157 people (drivers and non-drivers) one of two sets of questions (near identical, just with a couple of words edited to make relevant to a driving or non-driving-related risk) the rearchers were able to determine "unconscious biases due to cultural assumptions about the role of private cars".

For example, while 75 per cent of people agreed that 'people shouldn't smoke in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in the cigarette fumes', only 17 per cent agreed with the same statement changed to 'people shouldn't drive in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in the car fumes'.

Likewise, 37 per cent believed the police needed to take action if someone left their belongings in the street leading to them being stolen, but 87 per cent agreed with the word 'belongings' replaced by 'car'.

While 61 per cent of people agreed that risk is a 'natural part of driving', just 31 per cent agreed that risk is a 'natural part of work'.

"It is nonsensical to say that making people breathe toxic air is a problem when it comes from a cigarette, but making people breathe toxic air is fine when it comes from a car," Dr Walker said. 

"The underlying principle is the same, but people in our study were not using the same standards when they judged the two things.

"It's long been suspected that people can slip unconsciously into using different standards when they think about driving, leading them to commit a fallacy known as 'special pleading'. Our study was intended to reveal this phenomenon and show just how substantial these effects can be."

Co-author Dr Davis also explained that it was not just a problem seen in the driving population of the research.

"When we pulled out just the people in our survey who didn't drive, we saw that even these people were using different standards when the questions asked about driving," he said. 

"Their answers tended to echo what the drivers were saying, meaning it's not even simple self-interest at work. It's got to be something deeper, rooted in our culture."

And commenting on the same bias slipping into the minds of policy makers at government level and within the medical profession, co-author Tapp explained one example of an implication for policy.

"If you asked a politician whether a new hospital should be inaccessible to one-fifth of the population, obviously they'd say 'no'," he suggested.

"Whereas if you asked that same politician whether a hospital should be built on the edge of town, it's likely that many wouldn't see the problem, if they have a form of this mindset we're looking at. But in practice, having the hospital outside town is not that different from making it inaccessible when a fifth of households don't have a car."

Professor Walker added: "Every decision maker needs to get used to asking themselves, 'What's the underlying principle we're considering here, and would I still be happy with it if we were talking about something other than road transport?"

Dan joined in 2020, and spent most of his first year (hopefully) keeping you entertained on the live blog. At the start of 2022 he took on the role of news editor. Before joining, Dan wrote about various sports, including football and boxing for the Daily Express, and covered the weird and wonderful world of non-league football for The Non-League Paper. Part of the generation inspired by the 2012 Olympics, Dan has been 'enjoying' life on two wheels ever since and spends his weekends making bonk-induced trips to the petrol stations of the south of England.

Latest Comments