4 Understanding Illegal Driving Behaviour

4 Understanding Illegal Driving Behaviour

This chapter explores the justifications that were given for illegal driving, the perceived social acceptability of different driving behaviours, and a discussion on 'worse offenders' leading to participants determining their own definition of the prolific illegal driver.

Admissions and Acceptance of Guilt: Ambivalence versus Remorse

4.1 All participants were asked if they were aware, at the time they were engaging in these driving behaviours, that they were illegal. On the whole, respondents did report that they were fully aware that they were breaking the law either at the time when they were driving, or on reflection:

"I suppose in the back of my head, I know I shouldn't be doing it, but I don't think I was actively thinking, "This is illegal." [Male 28]

4.2 Whilst there was an almost unanimous acceptance that what they were doing was legally wrong, there was less acceptance that such behaviours should be considered illegal and no respondents demonstrated remorse for their actions. Indeed, the primary attitude that was expressed was one of ambivalence.

Justifications for Illegal Driving

4.3 A number of different justifications were put forward by respondents in defence of their driving behaviours. The main justifications were that drivers considered they were 'always in control', that their behaviour was normative, that it was necessary to break driving laws in order to get things done (and done quickly), that behaviours were not dangerous or laws were not credible.

Self as a Competent Driver

4.4 Overwhelmingly, the biggest justification for engaging in illegal driving behaviours was a perception among almost all drivers that they never did anything unless they felt they were 'in control'. Most people perceived they were accomplished, safe and competent drivers and that, even though their behaviour may be technically illegal, they would not do it if they didn't feel they were in control. This was true of speeders, phone users and drink/drug drivers alike. Interestingly, some participants equated years' driving experience and volume of car travel with being a 'good' driver.

4.5 Several respondents also spoke about their driving behaviour (both legal and illegal) in terms of it being habitual, automatic and done without thought:

"I think you just get into a habit of saying, "Well, I was fine the last time that I did it, so I'll be fine this time." [Female, 28]

4.6 Whilst automaticity and driver control were expressed in almost all cases, it is important to recognise that some drivers did, with the benefit of both hindsight and prompted examination with a third party, acknowledge that these were perhaps dangerous attitudes. There was also, among some, a recognition that, although they engaged in behaviours at the time which they felt were 'safe', they had sometimes reflected on their actions and felt differently. As one drink driver explained:

"I did think about it at the time….I remember thinking, um, I need to use the vehicle, I need to use this transport to get from place to place, but I am over the limit now, but I felt safe. I felt it was okay to drive up until the point that I did speed, but it was essential to use the car. In retrospect, maybe it wasn't, but at the time, I convinced myself it was okay to do it…If I felt that I was unsafe, I wouldn't have got into the car. But, I was almost home before I thought, "This isn't as comfortable as I had hoped"." [Male, 29]

4.7 Others did also acknowledge that sometimes they may 'lose control', but this was never seen as something they would be responsible for. When asked what might be the worst thing that could happen whilst speeding, one participant explained:

"I lose actual control of the vehicle, whether it be through a mechanical fault, weather conditions, or somebody hitting me. Then, I've no control and…I don't like that, 'cause I can't avoid it." [Male, 62]

4.8 The lack of personal blame was very much evident from such statements with people unanimously perceiving that any scenario that might arise in which they would feel 'out of control' would not be their own doing - even if they were speeding at the time. Overall, the sample demonstrated high levels of self-efficacy or confidence in their own abilities to perform almost any kind of driving behaviour.

Behaviours not considered risky or dangerous

4.9 In addition to high levels of reported self-efficacy and perceived behavioural control, most drivers failed to consider that their behaviours were risky. All speeders demonstrated a general denial that the speeds they were driving at presented a real risk, either to themselves, or others, and suggested it was the rules, rather than their behaviour, that needed to change:

"I just don't feel like I'm being unsafe. Yes, technically, you're breaking the rules, but you maybe feel that the rules need looking at." [Male 28]

4.10 Phone users also used the rationale of 'feeling safe' to defend their behaviours. One female respondent who regularly used her phone to text while driving also commented that she would not do it unless she felt safe:

"If I didn't feel confident or safe at the wheel.. then I wouldn't do it. Just 'cause it's what I've always done and I feel safe when I do it and I wouldn't put my kids at risk…if I didn't feel safe." [Female, 29]

4.11 Others described how answering phone calls in the car was also safer than letting the phone ring which they perceived as a distraction in itself:

"Cause it's quite distracting. It can be quite distracting - the phone ringing and you're thinking, "Well, what can it be about?"… So, in that respect, it can be almost worse than not answering it 'cause you're wondering "What can it be?" and not concentrating on what you're actually doing. At least if you pick up the phone, and it's only, "Can you pick up a bag of sugar?", or something like that, you know it's nothing life threatening." [Male, 50]

4.12 Similar statements were made by other drivers who described having to answer calls in case the nature of the call was 'urgent'. For example, something may be wrong with their children, or an urgent situation may have arisen at work. It is interesting to note that none of those interviewed had ever received calls of such a nature yet the perceived chances of this being the reason for the call seemed to be higher than the perceived risks of being involved in an accident as a result of talking while driving. One participant spoke in terms of 'life threatening' nature of phone calls yet, when asked about the likely risks of being involved in an accident as a result of taking such a call did not recognise, as real, the 'life threatening' nature of his behaviour. This may suggest that some drivers are not thinking about the situation or environment in which they are currently placed when driving, and that the risks of things occurring elsewhere are seen as more real and more pressing.

4.13 Similarly, even drink and drug drivers felt that the behaviours they engaged in were not unsafe:

"I didn't feel it was unsafe…Sometimes with drugs, you don't really think about it, 'cause you still feel 'normal'." [Male, 29]

"It [taking drugs] doesn't really affect you at all. It's no worse than driving when you're a bit tired, and you've woken up early…" [Male, 22]

4.14 Indeed, one drink driver explained that he felt that his driving was improved and safer while intoxicated because it made him drive more conservatively:

"It [the cannabis] did stop me speeding. I thought I was going really fast, and I looked down and I was only going 65 mph…I think I'm even more cautious in that state [when 'stoned']. I'll anticipate more and give people more space…I'm more relaxed, basically." [Male, 22]

4.15 The perception of themselves as competent and low-risk drivers was supported, they perceived, by the low frequency with which they had been involved in road traffic accidents or had been caught by the police. Although most participants had received previous penalties for their driving, the frequency of being caught, compared to the frequency with which they engaged in reported illegal behaviours, was minimal. This too was used as justification for continuing to engage in illegal driving behaviours and is discussed in more detail below. Overall, the sentiments expressed suggest a strong relationship between low perceived risks and the behaviours displayed.

"Everyone Does It"

4.16 Speeding, in particular, was justified in almost all cases by the perception that it was something that the majority of drivers did, i.e. it was a normative behaviour. This was especially true on motorways and dual carriageways with speed limits of 70 mph, where people perceived that it would be counter to the norm to stick to the designated thresholds:

"You are well aware that you are in the inside lane and you're going at 75 mph and the majority of cars are overtaking you…So, I think that gives you a sense of it's okay, if you see what I mean." [Female, 41]

4.17 Similarly, people felt that use of mobile phones was also widespread and that they represented the 'norm' in engaging in this type of behaviour.

4.18 One driver, in discussions around his drug driving, also explained that, since it was common practice among his peers, he did not see that he was substantively different from the norm:

"It just seems like normal, acceptable behaviour. It just doesn't seem wrong to me." [Male, 22]

4.19 Use of positive moral norms to defend their behaviours was widespread despite people recognising that their behaviour was illegal. This suggests, therefore, that among those interviewed, there were feelings that 'everyone breaks the law' when it comes to driving. The difference, perhaps, is that for some drivers this illegal behaviour was isolated to just one or two different types of activity whereas, among the sample interviewed here, the range and prevalence of behaviours was more widespread.

Laws as Non-credible

4.20 Feelings that their behaviours were socially widespread were backed-up by perceptions that the reason 'most people drive illegally' was because existing laws were too rigid, out-of-date or unrealistic. This was especially true for speed limits on major roads, which most respondents felt were too low:

"Cars are able to go a lot faster now than they were when the speed limits were introduced…Speed limits are perhaps 'over-cautious'." [Male 28]

4.21 As a result, many respondents explained that they used their own personal judgements in deciding how to drive and whether the laws should be applied to their particular journey:

"I realise that it is illegal, but I try and gauge for myself to say, "Well, what do I think are the risks of getting caught? Are they high?" I guess that's one thing that comes across my mind and also, "What is the actual risk to other road users, or pedestrians?"…So, even if it is illegal, I think, "Well, what's the risk?" You know?" [Male, 44]

4.22 Although such sentiments perhaps suggest some sense of consideration and judgement, rather than blanket illegality, people failed to grasp that, if everyone was making autonomous decisions, the roads would be chaotic.

Pressures of Time

4.23 In addition to their own perceived competence, another of the most frequently cited reasons for driving illegally or dangerously was time pressure. One respondent explained how his speeding was almost always motivated by 'not wanting to be late':

"I hate being late for things…I know it's not a very good excuse, but that's the reason why I do it [speed]. I don't do it for thrill seeking, or the fact that I'm breaking the law, I do it because I feel as if I've got to make up the extra minutes. Although, to be honest, it probably only gives me an extra 30 odd seconds at the end of the journey, probably. But, it's my perception that I'm getting there quicker." [Male, 50]

4.24 Another participant, a busy working mother of four who admitted to regularly speeding and driving without her seatbelt (even though she had previous convictions for both), explained:

"I think it's just the absolute, the huge time pressure that you're under. And, people say, 'make more time', but when you've got four children, there's no such thing as planning because… because anything can happen before you leave the house and normally, anything and everything does happen." [Female, 41]

4.25 It is interesting to note that some people spoke about 'lateness' as being less socially acceptable than speeding. Such sentiments suggest that moral norms around lateness were seen as being more important and influential in their decision making process than moral norms around safety on the roads. They may also reflect, however, the fact that people perceived lateness as a more visible social faux pas than speeding, which could more easily go undetected or unseen. This again highlights the interaction between perceived social norms and the behaviours displayed.

'Getting the job done'

4.26 In addition to avoiding lateness, some people justified speeding as a means of getting things done quickly and reaching their destination as soon as possible even when time pressures were not present:

"I wasn't really time pressured, because I had time once I got to Edinburgh before I met her [my friend]. I just, in my own mind, I wanted to be there… at the end of my journey." [Female, 62]

4.27 One respondent also described using his phone for sending emails while in the car if he perceived that it would take away from his workload at other times in the day, i.e. "It's one less thing I need to do." [Male, 44]

4.28 One female texter also explained that the 'sender' of the text, and the reason the text was being sent (including whether it needed urgent attention) would determine her likelihood of responding straight away whilst driving. Such explanations suggest that the types of illegal behaviours being discussed were not indiscriminate, and that there was some consideration as to whether the behaviour merited committing an illegal act on different occasions.

4.29 Discussions with one drink driver and one drug driver also revealed the same instrumental reasons for engaging in their illegal activities, e.g. a need to get home or take others home. When asked why he chose to drive after smoking cannabis at a recent party, one driver explained:

"The fact that I had work the next day and I had to get home, basically." [Male, 22]

4.30 And, when asked why he chose to drive while significantly over the alcohol limit following a recent Halloween party, another driver explained:

"There were things that we needed to do. There were passengers in the car and I didn't want to let my passengers down." [Male, 29]

4.31 Both socially, and for work purposes, people break the law in order to achieve a sense of 'getting things done', it seems. The expressed sense of urgency was not dissimilar to the arguments presented around pressures of time, however, the motivation here seems more about achieving finality to tasks.


4.32 Psychological research shows that one of the strongest determinants of behaviour is people's overall desire to perform that behaviour, otherwise referred to as intentionality (see Appendix B). Interestingly, this research showed that while drivers offered an array of different justifications for their behaviour, many also defended their driving in terms of a lack of intentionality. Indeed, despite all reporting repeat and, in most cases, long-term illegal driving patterns, there seemed to be a general refusal among participants to consider that their illegal driving was intentional:

"I don't go out and say, "Right, I'm gonna go out and speed today", it's just, you actually don't think about it. You actually do not think about it. You just get in the car." [Female, 56]

4.33 This lack of intentionality was used by many as a means of justifying their behaviours, especially speeding. The attitude that, if it is not intentional, it is okay, was a strong emergent theme and seemed to be one of the key things that participants used to differentiate themselves between being someone who didn't always stick to the rules, as opposed to a 'prolific illegal driver' (discussed in more detail below).

4.34 Several female drivers who reported that they 'forgot' to use their seatbelts when driving (especially short journeys) also used this as justification:

"Like this morning, I was thinking, "I'm gonna be late", so I just started the car…I was in a hurry, and I didn't really think about it [putting on her seatbelt], to be honest….It just happened. And then, I'm driving along and then I think, "I haven't got me seatbelt on"…You just get distracted…We've all done it." [Female, 41]

4.35 In addition to perceiving her behaviour as unintentional, and therefore defensible, the above participant again implied an element of social prevalence which added weight to her defence. This lack of intentionality was also evident among those who said that they simply did not know what the alcohol limits were, or that it was illegal to drive without a rear restraint in the back of a car, almost such that, if they knew, they would not do it.

4.36 Despite these expressions of unintended action, when asked directly if they knew they were breaking the law, all participants said "Yes", and when asked if they thought about not engaging in a particular activity at any point during their recall of a recent 'illegal' journey, most also said that they did not consider stopping or taking alternative actions.

4.37 The use of un-intentionality as a defence for illegal driving seems to contradict the other main theme to emerge from drivers that they perceived they were 'always in control', and perhaps suggests that a part of feeling 'in control' is not thinking too much about their behaviours, i.e. an inherent automaticity to driving that makes people feel safe.

Perceived Social Acceptability of Different Behaviours


4.38 Most people perceived that the majority of drivers were speeders to some extent and, in particular, the prevalence with which they observed others breaking the speed limits on motorways and other major roads was seen as evidence that it was socially acceptable to do so:

"I think that driving at 75 mph on a motorway must be [socially acceptable] because, literally, 50% of the cars on there do it. If you go at 70 mph on the motorway, you will be passed, frequently." [Male, 50]

4.39 Although all respondents reported that speeding on major roads was acceptable, there was some variation in the different thresholds or upper tolerance levels that people described. For most, driving at 80 or 90 mph on the motorway or dual carriageway was seen as acceptable for both themselves and others, subject to road conditions, but regular speeds much beyond this were not widely admitted.

4.40 People's convictions were less firm with regards to speeding on other types of roads, and the general consensus was that drivers needed to use their discretion when deciding if it was safe to drive over the speed limits on roads designated as 30, 40, 50 or 60 mph zones. Overall, however, with the exception '20's plenty' zones and residential areas (discussed below) speeding was seen as a prevalent and non-serious form of law breaking.

Mobile Phone Use

4.41 Generally speaking, people felt that use of mobile phones to take and make calls, to email and to send and receive texts was acceptable and many commented that this was evidenced in the prevalence with which it could be observed on the roads.

"Nearly every second car you pass, somebody is on the phone." [Female, 56]

4.42 Although most people perceived that mobile phone usage probably should attract more social stigma, several comments were also made about where to 'draw the line' with hands-free driving. People compared it to driving while holding a cigarette which they saw as comparable but not illegal. People also queried whether there was any significant difference between speaking on the phone and speaking to passengers in the car, in terms of the level of distraction that it caused. That said, most drivers who did report using their mobile phones while driving recognised that there were some inherent (albeit low-likelihood) risks such that, if they were travelling with others, they may ask their passengers to take the calls/respond to emails or texts on their behalf.

4.43 Overall, use of mobile phones for either calling or texting was perceived as less socially acceptable than speeding on main roads - again, because people perceived that it took away from the 'control' over the vehicle that the driver would have. Interestingly, in two cases, participants explained that, despite being less socially acceptable, they would be more likely to text when driving than to speed, not for safety purposes, but due to the relative perceived risks of being caught attached to each type of behaviour:

"If you're speeding, the proof is there, whereas, if you're texting, they'd have to prove you were texting. Although, I suppose they could actually prove you were texting, couldn't they? It just seems more obvious that you'd be caught speeding, than texting." [Female, 29]

4.44 Indeed, the same female participant went on to explain that she knew the behaviour was inherently wrong, and illegal, but that she had developed strategies for disguising her texting when driving to minimise risks of detection. Another male driver, who said that he repeatedly sent and received texts whilst driving, shared this view and also described his strategies for avoiding detection:

"I probably just had it [the phone], you know, not raised up, but sitting in my lap…I don't see that anyone could catch me. You know, a policeman would literally have to be, probably beside me, like in the other lane…I can't really see a way of getting caught texting, because it's done so discretely." [Male 28]

4.45 Interestingly, the descriptions of phone use for texting while driving highlighted the clear dangers associated with diverted attention not only during the communication, but in keeping an eye out for police and taking actions to disguise the behaviour.

Not using Restraints

4.46 Most people perceived that seatbelt use was common practice among the majority of drivers. Respondents felt that using a seatbelt in the front of the car was sensible, and required little effort and so they did not see it as something that was difficult to comply with. The main person at risk for non-compliance was seen as the driver and so there was little social stigma attached to non-compliance since it was considered 'drivers' choice'.

4.47 As described above, some people were unaware that rear seatbelt use was mandatory and, where people were aware, some suggested that this again was perhaps a passenger's prerogative since the only potential victim was the person themselves. This perhaps indicates a lack of awareness of the harm that can be done to others by non-compliance.

Drink and Drug Driving

4.48 Perhaps the strongest sentiments with regards to social acceptability were made in relation to drink and drug driving. Almost unanimously, participants were critical and non-approving of drink and drug driving and perceived this as the worst of all illegal driving behaviours that were discussed.

4.49 This was true for all but three participants - two of whom admitted to engaging in such activities and another who felt that it was a driver's personal choice, although he himself had not ever driven under the influence. The reason for this was, he explained, that different people had different levels of tolerance towards alcohol and so some people could potentially still drive safely even when over the 'legal' limit, whilst recognising that others were dangerous after just one drink.

4.50 One participant commented that they felt the social stigma around drink driving was something that would be reflected across his generation but also observed that the importance of not driving under the influence had, perhaps, not been continued into younger or subsequent generations of drivers:

"When I started to drive, there were a lot of people drink driving, but they were an older generation. Younger people didn't tend to do it. And, I don't know whether it's starting to change again, cause maybe people aren't paying attention to it so much. But the generation I came through, they don't tend to drink and drive." [Male, 44]

4.51 In contrast, another participant reported that she felt that younger people nowadays were more cognisant of the dangers of drink driving than people of her own generation had been:

"I mean, I know my son, if we go out for a drink, he'll have a coke. He doesn't drink when he's driving…his friends all seem to be like that." [Female, 62]

4.52 Interestingly, the drivers who admitted to engaging in this type of behaviour were all in their 20s and the respondent who was ambivalent towards it was in his 60s, i.e. at opposite ends of the age range who took part. This does perhaps suggest a generational element to the perceived acceptability, and likelihood, of engaging in drink driving.

4.53 As with speeding and phone use, even those who engaged in drink and drug driving displayed some notion of an upper tolerance or threshold beyond which they would not venture:

"Yeah, I'd still drive and take drugs. It depends what drug. If you're obviously tripping on acid, it's different…and some of my friends drive when actually smoking a joint. I wouldn't do that myself." [Male, 22]

4.54 This shows that everyone has a level at which behaviours are seen as not acceptable.

4.55 Overall, drink and drug driving were seen as 'worse' than all of the other behaviours listed, the main reasons being a perceived lack of control and a perception that, unlike all other illegal behaviours, it could not be done safely:

"I know that texting when you're driving, and speeding when you're driving is illegal, but it just doesn't seem as bad…I hate people who drink and drive. It's just 'cause you're not in control, are you? You can't have a drink and safely drive, whereas I feel when I'm texting, I can safely do it." [Female, 29]

4.56 As well as highlighting the general disdain that drink driving attracted, this response shows that two of the main factors people used for justifying their own illegal behaviours (being in control and feeling safe) were also used to criticise drink driving because it was considered that they could not be achieved while intoxicated. It is interesting that the drink drivers who were interviewed did, however, feel they were in control and safe when driving while intoxicated, again showing the subjective nature of justifications used.

The 'Worse Offender' and the 'Worse Offence'

4.57 Even though many drivers acknowledged they were guilty of regularly engaging in illegal, non-compliant and sometimes socially unacceptable behaviours, there was a shared view among participants that there was always someone who was a "worse offender" than themselves. This reasoning was particularly evident in conversations about motorway speeding (i.e. there is always someone driving faster).

4.58 It was also evident in discussions with mobile phone users. In particular, people described how they would only use the phone for short periods, while they knew that others spoke for longer periods or even entire journeys using a hand held phone, with apparent disregard of the dangers:

"I see plenty of people, with the phone at their ear…I would never, ever contemplate doing that…I tend to be more subtle, and stick it under my chin, or under the wheel…I look at them and think, "I'm not as dangerous - they just don't care." [Male, 44]

4.59 Others described how they would use their phone to 'answer' calls but not to initiate them, which they considered as being 'worse', and to respond to texts, but not initiate them. Sending 'short' text messages was also seen as reasonable, but not 'long' messages, which they perceived only a dangerous driver would do.

4.60 People also described how they carried out their illegal activities, not as a result of pleasure seeking or for its own sake, but because there was practical or functional reason (e.g. speeding to get to a work meeting, or texting friends/family to keep them abreast of their likely arrival times, etc.) Having instrumental reasons for engaging in illegal driving behaviour was seen as a possible defence of their actions. Indeed, the perception was very much that the 'worse' offender would engage in such unscrupulous behaviours, without regard for their purpose, and that this, in itself, made them 'worse'.

4.61 Even among drug drivers, the upper tolerance and 'worse offender' scenario arose in discussions, and the worse offender was described as someone who "regardless of their level of intoxication, might just get up and get in the car." [Male, 29]

4.62 Similarly, although people recognised that what they were doing was illegal, many people suggested that criminal driving was secondary to other more serious offences, such as theft, physical assault or criminal damage, and used this as a justification for their own actions. The perception that they were not "real criminals" seemed to be shared by a large number of drivers who considered that society accepted most people would drive illegally at some point. This concept of the 'worse' offence seemed to justify their own actions:

"Sure, talking on the phone isn't good, and it is against the law, but it's not smashing some old lady in the face with a brick." [Male, 50]

"I guess when I compare it [illegal driving] to [other] people breaking into people's houses, and mugging people, I'm not the worst offender in society." [Male, 44]

4.63 People just did not consider their behaviours were 'that' illegal or that they could potentially even be seen that way or result in something punishable by a jail term. One person who took part in the pilot interviews likened illegal driving to 'littering'.

Defining the Prolific Illegal Driver

4.64 These factors combined might go some way to explaining why none of those who took part considered him/herself, on first asking, to be a prolific illegal driver. The idea that there were many other people who were 'more criminal' or regular abusers of the law meant that, only when prompted to consider the prevalence of their own self-reported behaviours, did people recognise that this label could potentially apply to them.

4.65 When asked to describe someone who they felt would fit this label, definitions included:

"I am a repeat offender…But, I'd like to think that I'm not a prolific offender because I think, well…I'm in control when I do it, I would say that 'prolific' makes it sound so extreme." [Male, 29]

"I suppose that prolific means that you're doing huge amounts of illegalness and repeat is kind of that you have one behaviour that you do all the time. Prolific sounds a bit more dramatic, like you're being drunk and speeding and on the phone and carrying lots of children in the back seat, which is pretty stupid." [Male 28]

4.66 Such descriptions clearly show the subjective nature of perceived prolific illegal driving and what is, and is not, considered safe or acceptable. Participants who had clearly reported engaging in multiple, repeat driving offences seemed to defend their own behaviours whilst at the same time describe the exact same behaviours by others as unacceptable. This was because, unlike themselves, they perceived the other driver was not 'in control' or was acting beyond their own tolerance level. The fact that participants' own tolerance levels were already set above those prescribed by the law was not something they seemed to acknowledge as meaning that they too were already 'too fast', 'too dangerous' or 'too risky'.

Drivers were aware that they were breaking the law and justifications included that they saw themselves as competent drivers; that they considered their behaviours not to be risky or dangerous; that "everyone does it"; that they considered the laws not to be credible or up-to-date; and that they were under pressures of time. While drivers offered an array of justifications for their behaviour, many also defended their driving in terms of a lack of intentionality. Other behaviours were simply not considered as being socially unacceptable and perceived social norms had an important role to play in the behaviours displayed. There was a shared view among participants that there was always someone who was a "worse offender" than themselves and none of those who took part considered themselves to be a prolific illegal driver.