Speeding and masculinity
by Ian Sinclair
Are you one of the overwhelming majority of drivers who admits to regularly breaking the speed limit? If so, you probably see it as a minor infraction of the law rather than a serious crime. Speeding is the motoring equivalent of a white lie – something a little bit naughty, something to gently mock your friends and family about, something to laugh at with Jeremy Clarkson as you watch Top Gear.
Speeding is so pervasive even the majority of ‘gatekeepers’ – magistrates, traffic police officers and a small group of driving instructors – admitted to the behaviour when interviewed for a 1997 Transport Research Laboratory study.
However, the basic facts suggest a very different reality. Speed is the main contributory factor in approximately a third of fatal car crashes in the UK, with the Department of Transport estimating that 4,187 deaths and serious injuries in 2009 were attributable to exceeding the speed limit of going too fast for the conditions. “Children are disproportionately represented as victims of speed”, notes Dr Claire Corbett, author of the 2003 book Car Crime. And while the popular image of speeding is someone hurtling down a motorway, arguably the greatest danger is speeding in urban areas. As Mike Penning, Conservative junior transport minister, said in 2010, the risk of death is four times higher when a pedestrian is hit at 40 mph than at 30 mph.
In addition, there is a close correlation between speeding and committing other motoring offences, with what Corbett calls ‘high speeders’ more likely to also drink drive, drive through amber and red lights and pull out from side roads without giving way to traffic, among other breaches. More generally, speeding likely causes more noise and environmental pollution, and more stress to other drivers and non-drivers on the road.
It is these uncomfortable facts that led Julie Spence, the outgoing head of Cambridgeshire police in 2010, to label speeding as “middle-class anti-social behaviour”. She went on to say that while anti-social behaviour is usually defined as rowdy youths or vandalism “driving without care or consideration for other road users is probably among the worst kind of anti-social behaviour in its truest since, because serious offenders can, and do, kill.” In terms of changing drivers’ behaviour, Corbett argues the difficulty “is that individual instances are only very infrequently negatively reinforced and the rarity of harm may help drivers to justify all other speeding occasions.”
Of course, we do not all have the same propensity to break the law behind the wheel. Men and women have very different relationships with cars. So while women often see cars as a way to reduce fear of crime and as a tool for independence, men often use cars to demonstrate their driving prowess and to project an image of success in life. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, research consistently shows men are substantially more likely to speed and be involved in fatal crashes. They account for 82 percent of speeding offences and 97 percent of dangerous driving convictions, according to 2005 Home Office figures. Importantly, men are also more likely to overestimate their own driving skills, with a 2005 Admiral poll revealing 65 percent of men thought they were better drivers than average. Only 47 percent of women thought the same. This male arrogance is especially acute among young men, a 2011 poll by Ireland’s AA Motor Insurance showing 9 in 10 men aged between 17 and 24 believed their driving skills were above average. Psychologists have a name for this – illusionary superiority. That is the cognitive bias that causes an individual to overestimate their positive qualities and underestimate their positive qualities.
Corbett lists personality traits such as “thrill-seeking, sensation-seeking, risk-seeking” along with “a sense of time urgency, competitiveness, ambition and alertness” as casual factors linked to speeding. Throw in the need to show competence, control, power and aggression and you have a fairly good summary of the mainstream masculinity that all boys are imbued with as they grow up. But while these traits are fine on a ride-on lawnmower or during a particularly strenuous Wii gaming session, deployed behind the wheel of a powerful car they can be a serious problem, with potentially very serious consequences.
People give a variety of reasons for speeding, including enjoyment of driving fast, that they are in a hurry, the dangers are exaggerated and social pressure to ‘keep up’. But it strikes me that only emergency life or death situations morally justify breaking the speed limit. Do you disagree?