The Psychopathology of the Everyday Driver

speeding car pedestrian crossingSometimes life is simple:

Question: How fast will car drivers speed on any given stretch of road or street, in or out of the city?

Answer: As fast as they can.

Qualification: And if that is not true for every driver on the road (for example you or maybe me), it is true for enough of them such that if road safety is the goal, then this brutal, uncompromising reality must be taken into serious consideration.

Question 2: Now if this is indeed the case (and it most definitely  is!) what if anything can we do about it?

What doesn’t work

The first truth to be borne in mind is that legislating against speeding, creating speed limits, putting signs on the road (which create distractions, hence create dangers), and following up with public information programs will not work.

That is not to say that there will not be good citizens who are responsible to their civic duties who will not behave properly in accordance with the law. Surely so.  But there will always be a good number of drivers who live on another behavioral planet. They may be young and wild, they may be old and not tracking sufficiently, they may be running late, they may be distracted, they may be in a hurry (though in behavioral terms drivers are by definition and tradition just about always in a hurry to reach their destination . . . and that incidentally is one of the main reasons why they buy and drive cars in the first place. To save time  and have instant transport at hand.

What might work? (If we chose to live like that?)

So what about law enforcement in any of its various forms.  Might we take a page from the upside down world of Italy’s war time leader, Mussolini, who once famously said that to govern his country effectively is was necessary to ensure: “Next to every Italian his own policeman”?  (And since we have strayed if only briefly to the Duce’s theories of good governance we can also recall his other political admonition to the effect that the only possible way to govern Italy is by putting policemen everywhere and music in every piazza. He certainly had his ideas)

Yes, the odds are that rigorous ubiquitous enforcement will certainly drive down the number of offending drivers considerably. Likewise draconian traffic cameras on every corner may yield similar results.

But is that the sort of country or city in which we would really chose to live?


What always works?

Street architecture which effectively makes it impossible to exceed the desired speed limit.

We live in an era of technical virtuosity.  Competent traffic engineers working hand in hand with behavioral psychologists and elected officials and their technical staffs can design the system in just this way. That is not to say that it is always easy, since even they have for the most part been programmed through their training to provide for “efficient” driving conditions.  But many of them are ready for these new approaches and competent to realise them. Moreover, there is a considerable wealth of information both in the technical literature and in actual best practices in slow streets, that any responsible city or mayor should be looking at starting on Monday morning.  And in the event we shall be reporting in more detail on this with multiple references (with the help of our reader) in the week’s ahead.


To conclude:

Italian culture also gives us another old saying that is certainly far preferable to the two cited above: Chi va piano, va sano e va lontano – He who goes slowly goes safely, and he who goes safely goes far.

So let us go slowly. Go safely. And go far. Together.

# # #

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Educated as a development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and international sustainability activist who has lived and worked in Paris since 1969. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport - . | Britton online:

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