Our mobile conscience 

Dealing with good and evil (in traffic)

drawing head held anxietyIn 2010 a 38-year-old motorist filled with remorse entered a police station in the Netherlands to give himself up. Twenty years earlier he had run over a child and was ridden with guilt. The man explained that he slept badly since the accident, suffered from nightmares and could not find a decent permanent job. The approximately five-year-old child unexpectedly crossed the road and he could not brake in time. While another motorist took care of the victim, he drove away and since then he lived contrary to his conscience. Until it was too much for him that morning and he decided to surrender himself.

 This article by traffic psychologist  Gerard Tertoolen originally appeared in Dutch in the Dutch government blog KpVV Weblog Reisgedrag (KpVV Travel Behaviour Blog) on 27 May 2015 at http://kpvv-reisgedrag.blogspot.fr/2015/05/ons-mobiele-geweten.html.  The English language version you find here is a roughly edited version of Google Translate which makes for a tough read. It is the editor’s hope that some kind Dutch speaking person will have a look at the original and this draft and send corrections to editor.ecoplan.org, who will be most grateful.

Like the man in this example, the psychologist struggles with conscience. We do not know exactly how it works. Are we at birth already equipped to distinguish good from evil? Or do we learn that as a child based on experiences of reward and punishment? Or is it mainly the observed behavior of others around us (especially parents and peers) which form our conscience? We are hereby self-interested, or is it more ‘wanting to belong? It seems like a chicken-egg situation; our conscience is formed by education, but without any form of conscience to educate is impossible.

Suppressing impulses consumes energy

Anyway, somewhere in our heads is a place where our standards and our personalities are formed. The voice that tells us what we should and what we should not do. Facing the constant temptations of deeper passions. Temptations that we temper at one moment and at the next moment cannot resist.

A social psychologist Van Beest, explains as follows: “Aggressive men beat their wives rarely in the morning. They do it at night when they cannot control themselves, influenced by all kinds of factors such as alcohol and fatigue. Suppressing impulses consumes energy. There you have it constantly.”

In traffic, it is no different; with ticking time bombs on wheels waiting to explode most likely later on the day.


Subjective goodness and evil 

I borrow a conjecture from Lecturer in Philosophy Jeroen de Ridder concerning a possible connection between an ethical dilemma and sprouts. He argues that most Dutch people are happy that they live in the Netherlands, where slavery is rejected. But what did those same people think if they have lived in ancient Greece? Would they also have found it morally reprehensible to keep people as slaves? I do not think so.

Ridder confronts us with the example of a little girl named Junia who is happy that she does not like Brussels sprouts: “I refuse to eat them because they are awfully dirty.” Both the taste of Brussels sprouts like the disapproval of keeping slaves, as history shows, are not objective facts. They are individual or societal interpretations of events.

It’s interesting to conjecture whether the failure to stop after an accident of this gravity is an objectively evil act.  Or that in a different kind of society it is conceivable, that it might be approved. Would the same man who in 2010 caused the death of the child no longer do so with impunity as his conscience dictated, in such a (less exigent) society not have to endure such a long struggle? In our society, there are people who approve things that are morally condemned by others. Universal rules about good and evil apparently do not exist.

About anticipating guilt and emotional blackmail 

If our behavior only affects ourselves, our conscience is usually quiet. For instance, an appeal to trade in your car for a bike because it benefits your health —  and not on moral grounds. But what if one connects the consequences of your choice to the fate of your children? The idea that you may not outlive your children could make it hard for a healthy and long-lived parent’s to reconcile with their conscience.

Another reason often given for people to cycle more is that it is better for the environment. It may sound a bit much, but it is in fact a case of emotional blackmail. this if we do not switch to a bicycle, we are partly to blame for the demise of the earth and passing on misery to future generations.

If you are very committed to your car, you’re in good company. You will find plenty of people who support you. “It’s not so bad with this global warming business and if it does exist then let’s carry on with the car, but with limits. And besides: everyone drives a car, so that is quite normal.” Voila, we can then give it the gas with a more or less clear conscience.

As regards road safety our conscience behaves in a similar manner. If only I know that I am in a drunken state when driving home, I can get my conscience relatively easily to give myself a pass. But even then: I know that there are people who care about me. What about them if I put my life at risk unnecessarily? And if in an accident I damage my head because I am too drunk, that is really morally irresponsible. If I have any doubts at the supreme moment, the government tries to reinforce the efforts of my conscience with education, sanctions and offering behavioral alternatives.

Paradoxes of supplication

Most people have a reasonably healthy conscience and will stop after causing an accident. Most people will not wilfully ruin the environment, and love their children enough to be careful and grow old to be part of their life. Therefore, we should be able to appeal to people’s conscience as a marketing tool. Everyone may feel some guilt about something, and when you change your behaviour on these points, you can ease that pain. That provides a happy feeling for both the party appealing for the change, and yourself. (Kind thanks to Paul Plak for cleaning up this paragraph, of which the editor’s original try was, to be kind, puzzling.)

The effectiveness of your strategy depends on how you work. That of pointing fingers has little success, that we know already. The government at this point has learned that lesson. Marketing experts Alex Hesz and Bambos Neophytou warn of offering turnkey solutions for reducing  guilt. In the world of mobility this unfortunately happens often: “Go cycling, work at home, buy an electric car, drive slowly, take the train. Then you can sleep sweetly afterwards.”

It sounds logical, but in practice does not work for everybody. In the real world this approach meets with various forms of resistance. “Your solution is a nice idea, but it’s not for me.” Beyond that in many cases there is hardly any sense of shame about the exhibited behavior . “Everyone does it, after all, so who cares?”

What then? Hesz and Neohytou offer a three-step plan that fits well with my own vision of effectively influencing behavior.

  1. Step one is participation. People themselves have the opportunity to get involved in the desired behavior. Instead of the pre-cooked solution ready to consume, it is advisable to put people themselves to think. Is there a problem? For who is it a problem? What can we do about it? And then, what’s your problem and what can you do about it? Involvement and commitment provide a much greater chance of lasting behavioral change.
  1. Step two is consistency. Communicate the good qualities of the desired behavior if the behavior of the messenger himself is beyond reproach.  .
  1. Step three is realism and moderation. Do not exaggerate. Before you accuse people you must have evidence. A single motorist cannot improve the environment. Cycling to work is not a guarantee to be a good parent and to stay one. There is a clear line between guilt and asking for assistance. Put particular emphasis on the latter.

Finally, to get back to our social psychologist Van Beest from the beginning of this blog. Our conscience is at its best when we are spry and fit.  It is therefore recommended to listen to it at such moments.  Within your company if you want your employees to work for a common goal, meet and speak with them at the beginning of the day. Organize meetings on road safety or a new transport plan at the beginning of the week — and not when the working week has exhausted us mentally and we yearn for the weekend.

You have to strike while the iron is hot.


  • Hesz, A. & Neophytou, B., 2010, Guilt Trip: From Fear to Guilt on the Green Bandwagon, Wiley & Sons: Chichester, UK.
  • HLN, 2010, Saoedi die kind doodreed geeft zich na 21 jaar aan, Media Voogel, Haarlem.
  • Meester, M., 2007, De rol van het geweten, Aware Psychologie.
  • Ridder, J. de, 2014, Spinnen, bijen en de moraal, Abraham Kuyper Center, Amsterdam.
  • Schimmel, C.W., 2009, Het geweten: theologisch, psychologisch en pedagogisch, Drs Magazine online

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About the author:

gerard TertoolenGerard Tertoolen was born in Gouda, The Netherlands. He studied Clinical, Social and Organisational Psychology in Utrecht and obtained his Ph.D. in Social Psychology in 1994, from the University of Utrecht. He began his career as a researcher at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, participating in an international programme on climate change. After that he worked as researcher, innovator, trainer and traffic psychologist for the Ministry of Transport, PvM (think tank about ‘Passenger Transport in the Future’) and TNO Research. Currently he is working as a senior consultant and traffic psychologist for XTNT, Experts in Traffic and Transport and has  founded his own company: The Traffic Psychologist GTi. He can be reached at g.tertoolen@xtnt.nl .

About the editor:

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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