7 Discussion

7 Discussion

The Findings in Context

Reported behaviours - qualitative findings alongside survey findings

7.1 Previous self-report surveys have shown that the illegal driving activity that people are most likely to engage in is speeding. The results from this work support the surveys insofar as all respondents reported driving over the speed limit on at least one type of road, and all but one said that they regularly went above 75 mph on 70 mph roads. Interestingly, however, while previous RITS surveys have shown that speeding in 30 mph zones is more prevalent than speeding on faster designated roads, the interviews here suggest that speeding on motorways and dual carriageways is more prevalent.

7.2 Previous surveys have shown that levels of reported driving under the influence of drugs and over the legal alcohol limit are negligible. With a sample of just 15, this research captured three people who reported regularly engaging in these types of behaviours (i.e. 1 in 5 of those interviewed) and so this particular group of risk takers was perhaps over-represented in the sample. Given the qualitative nature of the work, however, and the fact that it did not seek to be representative, the over-inclusion of these respondents meant that valuable insight was gained into what motivated drink and drug driving as well as how such drivers justify their behaviours. Interestingly, while only three participants were prepared to admit to regularly engaging in these behaviours, interviews with some of the younger (under 30s) drivers and some of those living in rural areas suggested that drink driving, and to a lesser extent drug driving, may be more prevalent in some social circles than self-report surveys suggest. In rural areas this was seen as being linked to a perception that there were few risks of being caught for intoxicated driving (plus fewer travel options if one wanted to have a social drink), while among young people living in more urban areas, driving the morning after a heavy drinking session was mentioned as a common occurrence and some 'marginal' drink driving was reported insofar as people driving without really being sure if they were over or under the legal alcohol limits. The views expressed here also support previous research which has shown that some drink drivers rely upon their subjective judgements as to their fitness to drive when deciding to get behind the wheel when intoxicated6.

7.3 The latest sweep of the RITS survey showed that the vast majority of drivers knew it was important to wear a seatbelt at all times, however, people were less strong in their convictions around rear seatbelt compliance (in both private cars and taxis). The survey also showed that there was a hard core of drivers for whom the perceived low risks of not wearing a seatbelt meant that the principles of compliance might be ignored. The same has been shown here with many of the older female drivers in particular expressing that they knew the importance of seatbelt compliance, but often failed to use their restraints when making short, local journeys, simply because they did not consider it dangerous to do so. This was one area where the attitudes expressed (i.e. that driving without a restraint was dangerous) and the behaviours displayed (i.e. non-compliance) were not congruent.

7.4 Previous research has also suggested that risk taking is strongly related to age and gender. Data from the RITS surveys show that men and those aged under 45 are much more likely to adopt risky and illegal driving behaviours than women and older drivers. While it is difficult to say from a sample of 15 whether this research supports or refutes such evidence, what does seem clear is that the range and frequency of different behaviours reported by people across different genders and age ranges were not considerably different for this sample. Indeed, this absence of any strong gender or age differences in participants' perceptions or reported behaviours is quite striking. Given the size and relative limitations of the sample interviewed here, further research may be required to explore if age and gender similarities in drivers' qualifications and justifications are more widespread.

7.5 Overall, it is difficult to say conclusively from this piece of small scale qualitative work if there are any main clusters or 'types' of drivers, or also which kind of people are more or less likely to engage in different types of illegal behaviours. There is an inherent bias in this sample because it was, to a degree, self-selecting (i.e. many people who were eligible to take part declined to do so) and this means that the sample is not representative. This aside, however, the work has shown that there does not appear to be any 'type' of respondent (either in gender or age terms) who does not engage in illegal behaviours - it cannot be said that older drivers do not drive illegally, or that men or women are more or less likely to self-report such behaviours. Prolific illegal drivers interviewed here included the 'family man', the professional male, the working mother of four, the experienced older male driver, the young mother and the semi-retired grandmother - not solely the reckless, carefree, new or younger drivers.

Perceived risks - qualitative findings alongside survey findings

7.6 Results from the RITS survey suggest that there is a high risk taking group who also have a high level of received penalties, suggesting that penalties have not acted as a deterrent for them. This research supports this observation with 12 of the participants having received at least one previous penalty and eight receiving two or more different previous penalties. When asked about the impact of these penalties on their own behaviours, most reported that the effects were short-term.

7.7 The RITS survey has also previously shown that high risk takers are aware in comparable levels to lower risk taking groups of the potential for 'getting caught' and agree in similar levels to more mainstream drivers, that there is a good chance of being caught for actions like not wearing a seatbelt, using a mobile phone, etc. This work perhaps contradicts this message insofar as the risks of being caught were perceived to be quite slim, especially among those using their mobile phones for texting and those who reported taking illicit drugs before driving. In both cases, there was a perception that it would be very difficult for the police or others to accurately detect and 'prove' that they have engaged in these behaviours.

7.8 Following the latest sweep of the RITS survey, its administrators recommended the assessment of the reasons behind complacency including lack of perceived risk and consequences for self and others, acceptance of any such risk (both in terms of accidents and being caught) and the failure to recognise risk and illegal behaviours as unacceptable, or otherwise. This work has shown that, in terms of risk, there may indeed be a failure on behalf of many drivers to recognise that they themselves could potentially be either the perpetrator or victim of accidents or of being caught. Both were described as being very unlikely to almost all those involved. This is not to say that drivers did not recognise that such incidents could occur as a result of irresponsible driving, nor that they did not recognise the potentially devastating and serious consequences of accidents, but that they just didn't perceive this as a credible outcome from their own behaviour which they thought was 'in control' and largely safe.

Social desirability - qualitative findings alongside survey findings

7.9 The research here has also shown that, even for drivers who engage in various different types of illegal behaviours, there are gradients of acceptability for each. People largely felt that there was always someone who was prepared to push the boundaries of the law further than themselves and that these people should be targeted ahead of themselves in the priority order for tackling non-compliant behaviour. The notion of the 'worse offender' also seems to perpetuate the notion of low risks of being caught or having an accident, since people perceive it will be these 'others' who are more at risk than themselves. Given the wide variation in the behaviours reported by the sample, and that some appeared prima facie to be more dangerous both in their actuality and potential, it seems that it is not possible to define the 'ultimate' measure of acceptability or upper limit against which people benchmark their own behaviours.

7.10 Attitudes towards illegal driving, when compared to survey findings, suggest that this group do not hold counter-cultural ideas. They are aware that their behaviours are illegal and that they may be frowned upon socially, however, they consider that the prevalence with which they observe others engaging in the same behaviours means that they are in no small minority. Overall, perceived social norms had an important role to play in the behaviours displayed.

New Learning from the Research

7.11 Whilst the research has provided both support for some of the previous wider survey based findings, and has offered some alternative insights into some forms of behaviours, it has also provided added value in two particular areas.

7.12 Firstly, previous survey work was not able to show which combinations of risky/illegal behaviours prolific illegal drivers engage in. This work suggests that speeding is combined with almost all other types of risky or illegal driving behaviours, especially use of mobile phones and, in some cases, drink and drug driving. Few people reported 'only' speeding and so it may be concluded that willingness to break the law in one area is indicative of willingness to do so in another, for most. That said, the fact that most of those interviewed did not consider themselves to be 'real criminals' or even the 'worst offenders' on the roads suggests that this law breaking, for some, is isolated to driving. The observations that people perceive there is always someone worse than them, and that, although they engage in multiple repeat driving offences, much of this is due to pressure from known and unknown peers, perhaps leads many to assume that they represent the 'norm'. If so, this would mean that people are inadvertently accepting that prolific illegal driving is also the 'norm'.

7.13 Even where people accepted that what they did was wrong, most drivers considered themselves to be 'repeat' rather than 'prolific' offenders. Indeed, most drivers were 'high-volume' law breakers on the roads, but most showed some discrimination or sensitivity to different behaviours and were not just 'bad' across the board. This was also indicated in their expressions of upper thresholds for some types of illegal behaviours. The main message seems to be that people equated prolific illegal driving with severity, rather than frequency of risky or illegal driving behaviours and, on this basis, felt that their own behaviours were justified. Although a small and subtle difference, this perhaps provides insight into what attitudes need to be tackled in order to reduce this high volume illegal driving behaviour. Demonstrating to drivers that high frequency, lower level offending can be as dangerous as single incident reckless driving is something that emerges as a key finding from the work.

7.14 Secondly, while previous quantitative surveys have been useful in understanding the scale of the engagement in risky and illegal behaviours overall, they have not given insight into why these behaviours are carried out and what individuals' reasons are for the behaviours that they report and the attitudes that they hold. This research has shown that some of the main motivators include a strong sense of self-control or confidence in one's driving skills, perceptions that behaviours are not unsafe, perceptions that illegal driving is normative (and should not be considered as illegal) and low perceived risks of being caught or having an accident. While none of these findings are unique to this work, what does seem evident from interviewing these repeat illegal drivers is that there exists a strong element of 'trust in trust', or what Luhman (1979)7 refers to as confidence in one's expectations in both people and social systems, such that people perceive driving situations will be relatively familiar from one day to the next. The drivers interviewed here demonstrated a clear belief that 'other' people would adhere to tacit rules of driving (even illegal driving) which made it possible for them to interact confidently with other road users. People openly described the perceived dangers of 'overthinking' their driving, or the feelings of impediment they would encounter if they did drive in anything other than their 'normal' or 'familiar' way. What the drivers interviewed here did not explain, however, was why they failed to perceive that situations may realistically arise where it would not be possible to draw on their experience or skills, either because of the novelty of the situation or because time might not permit them to react in a safe way. The perceived remoteness of negative events ever happening to them remains the biggest attitude to be challenged among these drivers.

Implications for Policy and Future Social Marketing Campaigns

For Policy

7.15 The main implications from the research for policy seem to relate to the existing levels of speed limits on motorways and dual-carriageways and the existing levels of penalties handed out for various types of illegal behaviours.

7.16 Speeding was the main behaviour that people reported and was also the legal requirement that people offered most cynicism towards. This was especially true for roads with current 70 mph limits which, in many cases, people generally perceived as being too low and somewhat outdated. Several respondents commented that they felt the speed limits on motorway and dual-carriageways were too low given modern advances in vehicle technology and the improved capabilities of vehicles (under their control) to respond to unforeseen events on fast moving roads. As with previous work, however, it seems that an increase of speed limits to 80 mph on motorways would inevitably lead to most people driving above the new limit, most probably to the same proportions as at present i.e. people would drive at 90 mph, perceiving it to be within the upper margins of acceptability for such roads.

7.17 The second main observation for policy is that the existing levels of penalties are perceived as being too low tariff so as to offer a real deterrent to illegal driving. Even the one participant who had received a previous driving ban reported that this had not deterred him from continuing to drive illegally, in different situations, and in different ways. The low level impact of financial penalties suggests that more direct action to immobilise drivers (for example, suspension of licences even for short periods) may have greater impact. This is supported by comments that some of the main reasons for driving illegally are a perceived need to get things done (and done quickly) and to do things more conveniently (e.g. without using public transport). These practical or instrumental defences for illegal driving suggest that more functional (rather than financial) penalties are needed in order for people to take more considered action.

7.18 Related to this, perhaps, is the notion of greater police presence required on country roads. There seems to be an element of 'self-policing' in 30 mph areas in residential and urban areas and in 20 mph zones, where there was almost unanimous agreement that the risks posed to vulnerable road users (especially young children) made speeding both socially and personally unacceptable to drivers. People did not apply the same 'self-policing' principles to country roads which share 30 mph limits since they perceived that the risks to others were low and chance of being caught were also low. While some participants did recognise that speed cameras and warning signals on these roads may assist in deterring speeding on the outskirts of towns and when driving on rural roads between settlements, it seems that these roads were the ones that most people viewed as allowing the greatest amount of discretion among drivers to drive how they best saw fit.

For Social Marketing Campaigns

7.19 Recall of previous marketing campaigns was sketchy which suggests that alternative modes of communicating with drivers' may be necessary in order to improve recall. It is interesting, perhaps, that during many of the interviews, respondents reported that they had never spent so much time considering their driving behaviours as they did during the interview. Many said that their research participation alone was likely to make them 'think' and drive differently, albeit in the short term. This shows that traditional mass media campaigns may not be the only way to communicate with 'hard core' prolific illegal drivers and that more one-to-one or personalised highlighting and questioning of individual drivers' behaviours may be sufficient to make them reflect on and consider changing their behaviours. This type of model is, of course, characteristic of speed awareness courses which have been offered to drivers in the UK in recent years, and which have shown varying levels of success in actually modifying drivers' behaviours. The key, perhaps, is that making drivers take time to stop and consider their driving in a one-to-one context may work, and the interactions that some people described with the police, in which their behaviours were discussed rather than simply being penalised, seems a good way forward for encouraging self-reflection.

7.20 Reported direct impact of previous media campaigns on their own behaviours were also negligible, the exception perhaps being the 'Clunk-Click' and 'It's 30 for a reason' advertisements, both of which seem to have been effective in encouraging seatbelt compliance (for some older drivers) and reduced speeds in residential and built up areas. The latter campaign in particular appears to have been hard-hitting and almost all respondents expressed that they were especially mindful of the risks to children from their driving in built up areas. Indeed, harming or killing a child was cited by many as the 'worst' thing that could happen from irresponsible driving, suggesting that demonstrating to drivers that children can be harmed from other types of behaviours in addition to speeding (including not concentrating when texting/talking) or in different environments (e.g. on rural roads) may also work.

7.21 The significant self-report presence of mobile phone use for texting and calling, alongside zero recall for advertising or media campaigns targeted at this behaviour suggest that this is a definite priority for future campaigns. A number of interesting observations were made during interviews which may suggest that people's perceptions of likelihood of risks occurring in different scenarios was misguided or skewed. For example, many people who described using their phones on a regular basis defended this because they felt that the calls they were receiving may be linked to family emergencies or emergencies at work. This was despite none of the drivers reporting that this had ever been the case, and that most calls were in fact routine, non-urgent social or recreational in nature. Campaigns that demonstrate to people that the risks of taking a phone call, however important it is perceived to be, are more dangerous than the likelihood of the nature of the call being urgent may work (i.e. demonstrating the irony of a non-emergency call or text in contributing to a potentially real family emergency, in the form of a serious road traffic accident).

7.22 Given the sense of pressure from colleagues that was expressed, to use mobile phones while driving for work purposes, there may be value in specifically exploring how to better engage with business communities to encourage safer road safety cultures in workplaces. Previous research has shown that, by improving safety culture, companies can improve the safety attitudes of drivers remote from the fixed workplace and that this, in turn, is likely to influence road accident involvement8.

7.23 Common to discussions around previous experiences of being caught, previous direct and vicarious road traffic accidents and recall of road safety adverts and messages, there was a gap in people's applicability of 'lessons learned' to their own driving behaviours. The main reasons seem to be that, even where situations have been real (previous convictions, previous accidents of others, realistic adverts), people just do not consider that the risks or likelihood of the same thing happening to them (again) are that great. The perceived likelihood that 'x' would ever happen to them was minimal, despite all logic to explain how it may well apply. Adverts that explicitly ask the question, "Why can't it happen to you?" and show people admitting, "I was wrong" may reach this audience.

7.24 Although human factors play the most significant role in road traffic accidents, it seems that there may also be some important lessons from the research in terms of maximising people's use of technological advances to help reduce risky and illegal driving behaviours. Many people interviewed here reported that they had in-car technology to assist them with safer driving (including Bluetooth technology and seatbelt warning signs) and but don't use it. The ownership of such things as hands free technology supports observations that people were not completely risk unaware, or unaware of the illegality of using their phones to talk while driving one handed, and may suggest that, for some, efforts are made to try and comply with the law, albeit in a tokenistic fashion. Such ownership may be a sign that people are trying to make themselves 'feel' better, safer and more compliant even if, in reality their non-use of such devises means that they are no more safe or compliant in what they do. Adverts which highlight to drivers' the futility of owning such devices unless they are used may be quite impactful, since the change in behaviour required (e.g. to turn on hands free technology, or plug in seatbelts when warned at the start of the journey) is perhaps a smaller change than trying to influence driving once journeys have commenced.

7.25 Finally, it seems that there may be a need to present campaigns that challenge some of the stereotypes around who is responsible for illegal driving and the situations in which it occurs. Albeit without realising, some of the parents interviewed here were putting their children's lives at risk by such actions as texting when driving, and some of the older female drivers were quite aggressive and nonchalant about their excessive speeding behaviours. While surveys therefore suggest that younger, male drivers may demonstrate the most risky types of behaviours, the prevalence and frequency of some lower level, yet still risky and illegal activities among older and especially female drivers also needs to be addressed. Tackling the complacent perception of 'still being in control' among established drivers seems to lie at the heart of the problem and we need to find a way of challenging this misconception (perhaps by demonstrating their slower response times when texting/speeding) and remind them that their behaviours are still illegal (and that for some they represent the 'worse offender') may work.


7.26 In conclusion, 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.

7.27 While the research provides a rich insight into the attitudes and behaviour of the group of drivers who engage in multiple non-compliant and illegal driving behaviours, it has perhaps been less useful at providing understanding of what triggers may reduce future illegal driving behaviour, since, even among regular risky and illegal drivers, there is a lack of acknowledgement that these types of driving are really illegal, that these drivers are 'real' criminals or that the '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.

7.28 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. That is not to suggest a scaremongering approach, but rather to present wider messages to drivers about the fact that a single incident is all it takes for devastating and lifelong negative impacts to occur.

Glossary of Key Terms

Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN)
Formal Adult Warnings (FAWs)
National Centre for Social Research (NatCen)
Procurator Fiscal (PF)
Road Safety Tracking Survey (RITS)
Road Traffic Accident (RTA)
Royal Automobile Club (RAC)
Traffic Accident Database (STATS 19)