Op-ed: The Psychopathology of the Everyday Driver

speeding car pedestrian crossingSometimes life is simple:

Question: How fast will car drivers speed on any given stretch of road or street?

Answer: As fast as they can.

Qualification: And if that is not true for every driver on the road, it is true for enough of them that if road safety is the goal, then this brutal, uncompromising reality must be taken into serious consideration.

Question 2: Now what if anything can we do about it?

The Psychopathology: Car Use/Dependence is a “Habit”.

This may not sound like a particularly dazzling observation. If true, however, it makes all the difference in the world from a policy and results perspective. It has for many years been cheerfully assumed by analysts and policy makers that cars users are “rational beings”, who for the most part make rational choices. The received wisdom is that the user, when bit by the urge to travel and before making a final commitment to his car, first scans the range of available alternatives and, should any of these become attractive enough (or should his preferred historical choice become inconvenient enough), switch over to another mode of behavior. But after years of experience and observation (including of my own very ordinary case), it can safely be said that this is patently not true. Quite another process is involved, including one tremendous discontinuity.

For virtually all of us who have them, car dependence is an addiction, and like any deeply ingrained habit of daily life, very very hard to break! And almost wholly resistant to reason! As with any kind of addict, it is easy to be fooled by what those who are affected by it say, the reasons they give for their choices. There is thus a whole universe of reasoning, words and stated noble intentions on the one hand — and then on the other the simple, ineluctable facts of actual behavior.

The truth though is that our car owner/driver is just one more addict, and all the evidence massively confirms that, like any other addict, he is going to continue to do his thing — despite his high professions or protestations to the contrary — right up until such time that he just can’t do it any more… (And please understand that we are not attempting to demonize drivers, that is not the point. Rather we are trying simply to understand what is going on, and this is, therefore, neither more nor less than the simple truth of the matter.)


And to what above all are most drivers addicted?

The evidence suggests one thing: speed.  (Which gives us our first clue.)


And where will they speed?

Basically and taken as a whole, they will go as fast as their car will take them, and just about anywhere they can

That is not to say that there will not be good citizens who are responsible to their civic duties who will behave properly in accordance with the law. Surely so.  But there will always be a good number of drivers who live on another behavioral planet. They may be young and wild, they may be old and not tracking sufficiently, they may be in a hurry (though in behavioral terms drivers are by definition and tradition just about always in a hurry to reach their destination . . . and that incidentally is one of the main reasons why they buy and drive cars in the first place. To save time  and have instant transport (gratification)at hand.

This is very embarrassing,  because it means that if our roads and streets are to be safe, they must strategically and safely be designed in all their parts for the speeds which hard-nosed safety and public health authorities be reasonable in that place. There is no room for wishful thinking or hoping that good sense (and even with intimidation) will win out.  Because it won’t.

Fair enough, so what doesn’t work?

Most of the things that “reasonable people” might think of.

The first truth to be borne in mind is that (a) legislating against speeding, (b) creating speed limits, (c) putting signs on the road (which create distractions, hence create additional dangers), (d) driver education, and (e) following up with public information programs whether aimed at drivers, pedestrians, school children, cyclists, motorcyclists, and even law enforcement authorities,  WILL NOT GET THE JOB DONE.

  • How embarrassing, we have just covered about all of the most common responses being tried in most places.
  • But this is not to say that these important and often effective restraints to not have their role.  But rather that in themselves, even in combination, they will not get the basic job done.  I.e., our highly ambitious program of reducing traffic accidents due to excessive speed as far as possible.


What might work? (If we chose to live like that?)

So what about law enforcement in any of its various forms.  Might we take a page from the upside down world of Italy’s war time leader, Benito Mussolini, who once famously said that the answer to an orderly country was: “Next to every Italian his own policeman”?  (And since we have strayed here if only briefly to the Duce’s theories of good governance we can also recall his admonition to the effect that the only possible way to govern Italy is by putting policemen everywhere and music in every piazza.)

Yes, the odds are that rigorous ubiquitous enforcement will certainly drive down the number of offending drivers considerably. Likewise draconian traffic cameras on every corner may yield similar results.

  • But is that the sort of country or city in which we would really chose to live?


What ALWAYS works?

Street architecture which effectively makes it physically impossible to exceed the desired speed limit.

Competent traffic engineers can design the system in just this way. That is not to say that it is always easy, since even they have for the most part been programmed through their training to provide for “efficient” driving conditions.  But there is a considerable wealth of information both in the technical literature and in actual best practices in slow streets, that any responsible city or mayor should be looking at starting on Monday morning.  And in the event we shall be reporting in more detail on this with multiple references (with the help of our reader) in the week’s ahead.

Will it be easy?  The short answer is no. There will be considerable opposition from all sides to such reforms. But as the great innovator, Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, put it a decade ago when he was successfully reforming transport in his heavily challenged city, Bogotá: when you do anything for the better that will make a real difference on the street, you can be sure that there will be strong opposition from the car lobby.  As he put it to me at the time: “Don’t you understand Eric, they are SUPPOSED to scream.” So get ready. Nobody ever said that responsible governance is going to be easy.


Part II. More on what ALWAYS works

– To follow here shortly

# # #

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | http://bit.ly/2Ti8LsX | #fekbritton | https://twitter.com/ericbritton | and | https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericbritton/ Contact: climate@newmobility.org) | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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3 thoughts on “Op-ed: The Psychopathology of the Everyday Driver

  1. Dinesh Mohan, PhD
    Volvo Chair Professor Emeritus


    Delighted you have put this out.

    Those of us who have dabbled in the dismal science of road safety over the last four decades remain astonished that so many of the current road safety evangelists are not aware of scientific findings on this issue. Some outstanding work done in the 1970s showed that ‘education’/propaganda/exhortations alone did not reduce the rate of deaths and injuries on the road significantly and at times made it worse.

    Our new evangelists, like Mussolini, believe that they can change every ones values and behaviour with a combination of propaganda and CCTV cameras.

    It is fun to speed and break rules, especially when you are young. Best is to force everyone to go slow by design.


    Dinesh Mohan, PhD
    Volvo Chair Professor Emeritus
    Transportation Research & Injury Prevention Programme
    Room 815, 7th Floor, Main Building
    Indian Institute of Technology Delhi
    Hauz Khas, New Delhi 110016

    TEL +91 11 2659 6361 FAX +91 11 2685 8703 tripp.iitd.ac.in

  2. From Dr. Mah Hui
    City Councilman, George Town, Malaysia

    It is very interesting and promising proposition which i can agree with substantially. but suddenly you break off when you just made the point that its more effective to design the roads to slow down vehicles. Do you have section 2 to suggest what types of designs have been used and might work?

    In Penang, our council is using speed tables to slow down cars with limited success partly because its not well designed as i see the motorists and especially motor cyclist speeding up and crossing the speed tables at over 30 kph ! even with better designs how do we reduce their speed over stretches without the tables?

    mah hui

  3. Identifying car dependence as an addiction suggests that we might use the term “car abuse” for speeding, as well as for other forms of dangerous or inconsiderate driving. Now how about thinking of this as an analogue of child abuse ? Note that many more children are killed by cars than by sexual abusers.

    A child abuser is a pariah. He (who will usually be male) faces not only prison, but after his release a lifetime of surveillance, plus losing his job and his friends. This is surely one reason why most people manage to resist the temptation of getting instant sexual gratification this way. Maybe if speeding motorists risked suffering this fate, they might be able to resist the temptation of getting instant power gratification.

    Despite the above, I am not opposed to a preventive approach per se, but I am reluctant to support the idea of re-engineering our communities to make speeding impossible. Where will the money come from ? Will emergency vehicles be able to fulfil their function ? So how about the alternative approach of requiring all motorists to install speed limiters in their cars ? As they would be paid for by the motorists themselves there would be no extra burden on taxpayers.


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