You can feel safer in a big car. However, it is precisely the people who drive the largest vehicles that tend to take the most risks behind the wheel, explain two marketers in The Conversation.
According to a study published in The Lancet Public Health, road traffic injuries are projected to cost the global economy $1.8 trillion between 2015 and 2030, or 0.12% of global GDP each year. In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated the number of deaths worldwide as a result of road accidents at 1,350,000 (compared to less than 1,200,000 in 2000). In more than half of the cases, the victims are the most vulnerable users: cyclists and pedestrians.
A key element of this problem remains the conduct of motorists. The measures of road safety, concerning vehicle safety equipment or the highway code, have multiplied in recent decades. With some success in Europe and East Asia, where mortality has declined. But the trend remains upwards elsewhere.
In road safety policies, the link between driving behavior risque drivers and car size has hardly been factored into the equation. However, it is by understanding what drives drivers to take risks that we could also reduce road accidents and limit their impact on society.
This link between car size and risk taking is not obvious. On the one hand, consumers feel reassured when choosing large cars. On the other hand, statistics indicate that large cars are a lot more often involved in accidentswhich could suggest that drivers of large cars take more risks.
The illusion of a “safety cushion” on board a big car
There are more and more big cars on the roads. According to the International Energy Agency, there have been at least 35 million more SUVs on the road around the world in 2021, with record levels in France, the United Kingdom, Germany and China.
At the same time, the best-selling models have been growing in volume for a few decades. A study conducted by the specialist British credit broker Zuto provides some interesting examples: the size of the Ford Mustang has increased by 63% since 1964, and the Mini by 61%.
If the size of vehicles influences the behavior of motorists, this race for volume will have negative repercussions on road accidents. This observation led us to study the following idea in our research : Do big cars give drivers the impression of having a “safety cushion” that encourages them to take more risks?
We used an extremely realistic driver training simulator to test the driving differences between small and large cars. The simulator settings remained the same, but participants were told that they were driving either a small car (Toyota Yaris) or a large car (Toyota Avensis Wagon). They were asked to drive normally during the simulation.
The results showed that participants who thought they were driving a big car drove more sportily and had more risky behavior than with a smaller car. The car was however the same, with an identical reaction when pressing the accelerator or the brake. Only the behavior changed. They therefore thought they were better protected in the big cars and took more risks.
The feeling of security continues outside the vehicle
A second experiment showed that this higher overall risk-taking has other consequences. We asked ourselves whether drivers also took more risks once they got out of their vehicle, and we noted that the feeling of safety provided by the car was indeed a good indicator of overall risk taking, i.e. also say off the road.
Other studies support this finding. For example, previous research has shown that truck drivers often have an accident shortly after leaving their vehicle. The explanation is that the feeling of security felt inside the truck extends outside the vehicle and leads to excessive risk taking.
Risk-taking therefore takes place at different levels, at the wheel of the big car and then once outside the cockpit. The “safety cushion” effect can also encourage a person to buy or not buy a lottery ticket at a service station, or a drink rather than another.
A penalty from 1,800 kg in France
These results therefore encourage governments to favor the option of taxation based on the weight or size of the vehicle, which already exists in many many countries in Europe, with a view to road safety. In France, a law which imposes a penalty from 1800 kg has been in force since 2022.
These measures would be all the more justified since large cars can also cause greater damage in the event of an accident because of their size and put more strain on the infrastructure: they damage the roads more and need more space for parking.
Knowing this, infrastructure can also be designed to save lives. Indeed, if the streets are narrower, the risk taken by drivers of large vehicles will be less because they will slow down.