Driving towards acceptance – why young people engage in risky behaviour on the road

Driving towards acceptance – why young people engage in risky behaviour on the road
19 January 2016 frances

Psychologist Lauren Weston discusses why young people put themselves at risk while driving

Young drivers are involved in more road traffic collisions than any other age group. In the UK, road deaths account for 0.5% of all deaths, but 25% of deaths amongst 15 to 19 year old drivers and their passengers. Teenagers often use driving as a means of socialising, and it’s been found that they are more likely than older drivers to a) have passengers and b) have a greater number of passengers per trip. The presence of these passengers is a key factor implicated in the crash rate of drivers under 21 years old, but to infer that the presence of any passenger increases the risk would be oversimplifying the matter.

For young drivers, it appears to be the presence of same-age passengers that is most risky. Collision data shows that young drivers are most at risk when accompanied by teenage passengers, in particular male passengers; and by contrast their crash risk is much reduced when in the presence of adult passengers. The presence of peer passengers does not just increase the likelihood of distracted driving; research tells us that young drivers are also more likely to speed, drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and run red lights.

Researchers are now focusing on understanding why it is that peer passengers increase the crash risk for young drivers. It has been suggested that factors such as trying to please one’s peers and divided attention between driving and entertaining friends may influence young drivers’ propensity to engage in risky driving when accompanied by peer passengers. These types of factors are known as ‘social risk factors’ and they can exert their influence on young drivers’ behaviour directly or indirectly.

Direct or active forms of peer influence in the driving context might include verbally encouraging risky driving, physically interfering with the vehicle controls or distracting the driver by playing loud music. Direct peer influence has been found to substantially increase various forms of adolescent risk taking such as unsafe sex, adolescent drinking and smoking, but its influence on young people’s risky driving has not been investigated so thoroughly.

Indirect, or passive, forms of peer influence are exerted through the drivers’ perceptions of how others think they should drive. Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory (SIT) explains passive peer influence. Individuals base their identity on group membership, and to enhance feelings of belonging they are motivated to behave in line with the group’s norms even when not explicitly told to. Therefore, perceived pressure to drive in a risky way when in the presence of peers may stem from perceived group norms that specify appropriate behaviour for members. The mere presence of the passengers enforces the group norms and implicitly encourages them to behave in accordance with them, without active persuasion from the passenger. Passive peer influence is a critical factor in other teenage health behaviours, such as starting smoking, which appears to be a result of teenagers wanting to conform to the norms of the peer group, rather than through active pressure to smoke. In accordance with SIT, engagement in smoking appears to be a channel through which young people can define their social group, identify with in-group members, and emphasise their commitment to the group’s norms.

Although it’s widely accepted that peer influence can have detrimental effects on driving, the precise mechanisms through which it exerts an effect are less well researched. Is the influence of peers primarily direct and active, or indirect and passive? We ran a laboratory study to investigate how peers influence young drivers’ risky driving, using a relatively new measure of driving behaviour, the Behaviour of Young Novice Drivers Scale. Based on previous findings, we expected to find that participants who reported more risky driving behaviours would also report being influenced by their peers and that indirect influence would be a bigger predictor of risky driving than direct influence.

163 drivers aged 18 to 25 years old completed a susceptibility to active and passive peer influence questionnaire, which measured these factors using a set of self-report statements. Drivers had to rate their level of agreement to various statements. Four dimensions of peer influence were assessed, two active, two passive. The passive measures of peer influence were: Attaining Social Prestige e.g. ‘driving allows me to impress others’; and Apprehension about Friends’ Evaluations e.g. ‘what my friends think about my driving is important to me.’ The active forms of peer influence measured were: Peer Intervention in Decisions e.g. ‘when I’m driving my friends sometimes encourage me to speed to have fun’; and Pressure to make Traffic Violations e.g. ‘my friends pressure me to drive after I’ve had an alcoholic drink’.

Participants also completed the Behaviour of Young Novice Drivers Scale which measures the risky driving behaviour of specifically young drivers and comprises five subscales: transient violations; fixed violations; misjudgement; risky driving exposure; and driving in response to mood.

In our sample, high susceptibility to peer influence was related to significantly more self-reported risky driving behaviours and attaining social prestige (passive influence). Peers intervening in decisions (active influence) was a more more significant predictor of violations than apprehension of friends’ evaluations or through drivers feeling pressure to make traffic violations.

This means that drivers who felt the need to strive for social prestige and who experienced peers who intervened in their decisions reported more risky driving than the young drivers who report less need for social prestige, and who reported fewer interventions from their passengers. Feeling apprehensive about friends’ evaluations of their driving, or feeling a pressure to make traffic violations, were not predictive of risky driving.

The findings are consistent with previous research and partially support the notion that young people may perform risky driving behaviours to be in accordance with the social norms of their peer group. SIT suggests that members of social groups seek to strengthen their in-group membership by acting in ways to enhance their in-group similarity. For young drivers, driving is a part of their identity and a mode with which to transmit their norms and beliefs. If performing a risky driving behaviour is considered an appropriate way to sustain a good position within their social group, those susceptible to peer influence are likely to do it. In terms of the active forms of peer influence, ‘peers intervening in decisions’ was associated with more risky driving, but ‘pressure to make violations’ was not. This finding suggests that young drivers perceive the input of their peer passengers to be collaborative, rather than coercive. This further supports SIT, with risky driving likely to be considered a shared interest between some young drivers and their peers. Initiatives to confront the issue should focus on changing the perception that driving in a risky way is a means to attain social prestige.

It would be interesting to explore gender differences in young drivers’ susceptibility to peer influence and their risky driving. Statistics have shown that the presence of young male passengers has a much greater negative impact on the risky driving behaviour of young drivers than female passengers, so it would be helpful to understand how males and females are differentially influenced by their peers.

The findings discussed here are in line with research into peer influence and teenage health behaviours and provides further evidence that when young adults report being highly susceptible to peer influence, they also tend to report engaging in more risky driving behaviours. The results are important in terms of identifying risk factors for young drivers and their passengers, and designing appropriate interventions to tackle this issue.

Peer influence has been shown to be a critical factor in the risky driving behaviour of young drivers and so future initiatives might aim to address this issue. This could be by developing tools to enable drivers to resist the influence of the peers and by devising ways in which to counteract young people’s desire to use driving as a means to attain social prestige within their peer group.

Lauren Weston

Lauren completed this work as part of her psychology PhD studies at the University of Plymouth. Her research concerns the over-representation of young drivers in road traffic collisions, and she is specifically interested in examining the age-related factors associated with young drivers’ heightened risk.

This article first appeared in The Ergonomist, April 2015. The Ergonomist is free to members of the CIEHF. It is also available to buy as an app, search ‘ergonomist’ in the app store.