Executive Summary

Executive Summary


The aim of the research was to provide insights into the attitudes and behaviours of a number of drivers who regularly engage in multiple non-compliant and illegal driving behaviours on Scotland's roads. These qualitative insights sought to complement existing quantitative data around drivers' attitudes and behaviours collected by Transport Scotland on an on-going basis.

The findings are based upon qualitative, in-depth interviews with 15 self-confessed multiple, illegal drivers recruited using a free-find or opportunistic approach. The participants were of mixed gender, age (ranging from 18 to 62 years), driving experience and employment status. The sample was drawn from both urban and rural locations.

The research seeks to inform future policy development and social marketing campaigns around road safety in Scotland.

Key Findings

The extent and patterns of illegal driving behaviours

Consistent with survey research, speeding was the most prevalent of all self-reported illegal driving behaviours and, for most, it was a regular, daily activity. This was especially true for people driving on main roads with designated speeds of 70 mph. This, it seems, was seen as a normative and socially acceptable behaviour and was not really considered as being illegal by any of those interviewed.

Driving above the prescribed limits on slower roads was also quite prevalent, principally roads with limits of 40, 50 or 60 mph and especially in rural areas and on roads between adjoining towns. This type of speeding was more discriminate, however, and drivers described traffic conditions, times of day, and familiarity with such roads as all influencing their decisions to speed (or not) in these areas.

The areas least likely to be exposed to knowingly speeding drivers, based on the sample interviewed here, were '20's plenty' zones and designated 30 mph zones in built up or residential areas. Whether real or presented purely as a socially desirable response, it seems that none of those interviewed would deliberately speed in such areas, suggesting that they can, when they perceive it as necessary, stick within the prescribed limits due to safety, or other, considerations.

In frequency terms, speeding was followed by use of mobile phones to make and receive telephone calls whilst driving. Many of the older, working males, in particular, reported using their mobile phones on a daily basis to keep abreast of work developments, as well as for maintaining contact with family members while away from home. Younger drivers reported using their phones more for recreational than work or family purposes, and it was the nature of the calls, rather than the frequency with which calls and texts were being made which seemed to be the main differential across the ages.

Very few people self-reported driving under the influence of illicit drugs or when over the legal alcohol limit. Only three drivers (all males under the age of 30) were prepared to engage in discussions about their own illegal driving of this nature. That said, all reported that this was common practice among their peers and some of the older and younger female drivers, especially those living in rural areas, also reported that it was not uncommon in their local communities. For those who did report driving while intoxicated, this appears to occur in tandem with driving over the speed limits, as well as use of mobile phones.

Few of the respondents reported seatbelt non-compliance as a driver. Interestingly, this was perhaps more widespread among older females for whom the main failure to wear a restraint was during short, regular, low speed local journeys where it was seen as unnecessary. The regular failure to use restraints for longer journeys among those interviewed was not evident from this work. Rear seatbelt non-compliance was far more widespread, and the law was not well understood.

Although they knew that they were breaking the law, few people considered themselves to be a 'prolific' driving offender, despite reporting a wide range and regular frequency of engaging in illegal driving practices. The notion that there was always someone who was a 'worse offender' than themselves was also evident across the sample.

While the recruitment approach used, and the availability of different respondents in different demographic circumstances will have influenced the research findings to some extent, there were no clear clusters of different 'types' of drivers for whom the 'prolific illegal driver' classification more readily seemed to apply.

Justifications for illegal driving behaviours

Confidence in one's own driving, bolstered by years of 'successful' driving, seems to result in high levels of self-efficacy and perceived behavioural control which dominate drivers' thinking and decision processes when engaging in the full range of behaviours studied here. Overwhelmingly, those interviewed also reported that their driving practices were largely habitual and done very much without thought. The most frequently cited reference to cognitions or emotions was the need for drivers to feel 'in control', which they all did.

Although being 'in control' was the greatest justification for illegal driving behaviours, respondents also expressed sentiments that there should be an element of 'shared blame' for some of their actions which were perhaps less socially desirable - for example, the person who initiates the phone call that they answer, or other drivers who 'force' them to speed above the prescribed limits to 'keep up'. It is difficult to say whether these pressures were real or perceived and also whether they were used in these interviews as defences, rather than truly influencing drivers' decisions when on the roads.

The perceived social acceptability of different behaviours was varied, with drink and drug driving being the least tolerated. Even where people perceived some illegal driving practices as non-socially acceptable, this did not deter them from engaging in those behaviours (especially use of mobile phones). Attitudes were expressed that speeding and use of mobile phones while driving were normative (i.e. everyone does it), and this was used to justify behaviours.

Overall, feelings of guilt, remorse or the need for future self-reflection on their illegal driving activities were not observed.

Drivers' experiences of being caught and penalised or being involved in accidents

Most in the sample had incurred previous penalties for illegal driving. The range of illegal activities for which drivers had been caught was also quite diverse. Female drivers overall reported fewer and a narrower range of previous penalties, and were perhaps also marginally more likely to say that they perceived the risks of being caught as being small. Overall, the previous penalties that had been received were not seen as a sufficient deterrent to future illegal driving and existing penalties were seen, on the whole, to be quite ineffectual, especially financial penalties.

In contrast, direct and vicarious road traffic accident experience was scarce, and many drivers put this down to their own skills as a driver, their general awareness of risks and never putting themselves into situations that they perceived to be 'risky'. In the few cases where participants were able to describe accidents that they or known others had been involved in, these seemed to have had little lasting effects on their own driving behaviours and were often described as 'unlucky' or being outwith the driver's control.

The research showed mixed experiences with regards to interactions with police. For some, the 'matter of fact' treatment that they were shown was reasonable and fair. For others, the fact that they perceived their offending behaviour to be 'low level' and that there was always a worse offender than themselves made them feel that harsh treatment by the police was unwarranted. Despite mixed feelings with regards to police interactions, the message seems to be that police encounters had no long lasting deterrent effects on drivers' behaviours but that discursive interactions were perhaps more impactful than 'blame' oriented encounters.

Perceptions of risk

Despite reasonably high levels of previous convictions for illegal driving, there was a generally low perceived risk of being caught among the sample. The inevitability of being caught at some point in the future seemed to be something that drivers were prepared to accept as the number of times they would get caught, in comparison to the number of times they would perform their illegal behaviours, was considered disproportionately small.

Despite the pervasive involvement of road user behaviour in road traffic accidents, as shown by the official statistics, the perceived risks of harming either themselves or others also seem to be marginal among this sample. Again, this is because people perceived that their behaviours were not 'too' risky or dangerous and that they were always in control. While they did recognise that some things may happen to result in them being involved in an accident, the perception that these factors were likely to be external to themselves (i.e. another driver's error or unpredictable road conditions) meant that there was a preference not to 'overthink' these scenarios, since they were likely not to occur. Even when prompted on the various potential negative outcomes that may occur as a result of their driving behaviours (including accident risks), some drivers remained firm that 'over-thinking' their actions may be more dangerous than driving habitually.

Recall and impact of marketing campaigns

There was mixed but generally poor recall of various local or national road safety marketing campaigns. While most of those interviewed recalled adverts targeted at reducing speeds in 30 mph zones where children may be at risk, and there was some recall for various drink driving campaigns and rear seatbelt compliance, there was nothing with regards to mobile phone use and only recall of very dated campaigns targeted at front seat/driver seatbelt compliance.

Campaigns which demonstrate potential harm to self may not, it seems, be as effective as those that highlight risks to others.

Interestingly, from these interviews alone, there was no clear relationship evident between the types of driving behaviours that people were demonstrating, and their recall of different advertisements. People described needing 'constant' or 'regular' reminders of the potential risks that might occur as a result of their driving practices in order for them to become more present in their minds when driving.


The work has shown that, rather than there being a 'hard core', the number of drivers' to whom the 'prolific illegal driver' label may be applied is perhaps much broader. It spans all ages and both genders, albeit the combinations and reasons for different types of illegal driving vary among different segments of the population. The views expressed suggest that social, cultural and peer factors all influence illegal driving, and people's perceptions of social norms appear to explain prolific illegal driving behaviour more than any individual driver characteristics. This suggests that holistic, population based approaches to changing behaviours may be needed rather than those directed at the individual.

Even among regular risky and illegal drivers, there is a lack of acknowledgement that driving as they do is really illegal, that they are 'real' criminals or that their 'crimes' have real social impacts. This has important implications both for how policies are tailored and marketing campaigns are directed, since the first step to reaching many of these drivers is to make them aware that the policies and campaigns are targeted at them, and not others.

The general complacency among those interviewed that they were 'in control' and that risky driving was more characteristic of other drivers suggests that there is a translation gap between what the law prescribes as illegal and risky and what people perceive to be acceptable for themselves. Given that previous penalties seem to have been relatively ineffectual in changing drivers' behaviour, and the low prevalence of previous accident involvement is seen as reinforcing the sense that these driving practices are safe, more perhaps needs to be done to challenge people's estimations and expectations that future risks may occur.