The truth about driver stereotypes

by Iris Winston

Its sound system blaring, an old beater squeals from a standstill to a mufferless 50 km/h by mid-intersection….a sedately driven, well-maintained, silver sedan glides forward, a little below the posted speed limit….a golden yellow sub-compact decorated with racing stripes goes with the flow, keeping a safe two-chevron distance from the vehicle ahead.

Now picture the three drivers. The stereotypes would surely be a young male with spiked hair and tattoos at the wheel of the noise box, a late, middle-age professional in the quiet, full-size auto and a 30-something, well-groomed woman in the jaunty small car.

Are the pictures accurate? Sometimes. After all, stereotypes and the statistics on which insurance companies base their rates are drawn from the view on the roads and probability estimates.

In most cases, pocket books and personality guide a driver’s choice of vehicle. A middle income retiring type is not going to spring for a flamboyant, luxury vehicle such as a Lambourghini. A wealthy professional, interested in impressing clients is unlikely to settle for a 12-year-old rust bucket.

Therefore, it seems logical that driver behaviour and vehicle characteristics are linked. If this is true, can driving styles and danger signals be pinpointed by part of the picture – the vehicle colour, type of number plate or condition, for instance?

Absolutely not, says Constable Andrew Roach, a collision reconstructionist with the Ottawa City Police traffic division. “We expect cars to be driven properly and don’t target any particular type of car or driver,” he says. “It’s all in how you drive, not what you drive.”

This is supported in investigating crime, he adds. “Criminals tend to use ordinary-looking cars and drive down the road normally because they like to blend in as much as possible and be ignored.”

Still, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the view that the average driver makes assumptions about fellow drivers. Perhaps a previous encounter has left a lasting impression. It certainly did for me.

In my case, a young woman driving a dark green mini-van pulled out of a military installation on to a little-used country road, narrowly missing my Geo Metro. The scenario was repeated the next evening, both of us apparently finishing work at the same time. The result of these encounters? I am wary of mini-vans in general and dark green mini-vans in particular.

Conversations around the water cooler indicate that many drivers have the greatest concern about vehicles and drivers most unlike their automobiles and themselves. Doug Mayhew, Canadian Automobile Agency public relations manager for north and east Ontario, says that this was his conclusion after talking to a number of his colleagues.

“It’s all anecdotal, of course,” he says, “but the reaction was pretty consistent. The further away from the type of vehicle they drive and who they are, the more concerned they were.”

On this basis, drivers of large vehicles expressed concerns about drivers of small vehicles and vice versa. Older drivers worry about the young and the reckless at the wheel. Young drivers sense danger in the timidity associated with age.

Licence plates are driving-style triggers for many. Ontario drivers watch for Quebec number plates. Quebec drivers steer clear of Ontario number plates. Both avoid closeness to vehicles with red diplomatic plates as an extension of concern about the “strange other.”

At least one local taxi cab driver has the opposite view. He is more concerned about similarities than differences. Abu Addas says he pays particular attention to other taxi drivers.

“We are all driving for 12 hours at a time,” he points out. “So, there’s no way of telling how tired a driver is. And there are a lot of younger drivers without much experience, so I watch out, especially in the winter.”

Fellow cab driver Eddy Hay says that his biggest concern is not any automobile characteristic or automobiles at all. His worry is cyclists, particularly in the downtown core. OC Transpo communications coordinator Ralph Richardson agrees that cyclists are a major concern for bus drivers as well.

“Our drivers are trained to be prepared for the unexpected,” he says. “So their view is probably more concentrated on cyclists and pedestrians than other vehicles.”

But most drivers react to their first impressions of other automobiles. For instance, Southam News arts writer Jamie Portman, who frequently drives rental cars in other cities, says that he keeps his distance from cars with body damage.

“There’s a 50/50 chance that the driver was the responsible party in a crash,” he points out. “And if there’s a lot of damage, it’s possible that the driver doesn’t care about further damage, so I stay out of the way as much as possible.”

Cab driver Omar Teriaky takes a similar approach. “If I see any indication of bad driving, I try to keep away from that vehicle,” he says. “And that’s often difficult because there is so much impolite and reckless driving, especially downtown at traffic lights and when cars are trying to park.”

University of Ottawa professor Barry Wellar, who recently completed a traffic study about driver behaviour, says simply “the bigger the vehicle the higher the likelihood of its being in a crash and being driven aggressively.” It is logical to assume that the driver of a small, light vehicle is unlikely to drive aggressively at an intersection and will yield to the driver of a two-ton truck, for example.

“You are not aggressive in a Geo,” he says. “If you are, you’re dead. And there doesn’t seem to be any question that there’s an attitude that goes with driving a Hummer or a sport utility vehicle that seems to say ‘I paid $65,000 for this auto, so get out of my way.’ Although it’s anecdotal, the correlation between types of vehicles and aggressive driving practices is clear.”

And, just for the record, only one of the opening examples followed the stereotype. The full-size sedan is driven by a middle-aged professional. The old banger, however, belongs to an older woman with a hearing problem, who intends to have the muffler fixed as soon as she can afford it. The sub-compact is driven by an under-25 male who has just started up a business and wants potential customers to notice his vehicle (whichcarries a magnetic sign advertising his company.)

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