The scientist's voice

Road behaviour, an anthropological study

CONICET researcher studies the road behaviour of Argentine people.

Pablo Wright, investigador principal del CONICET

By Pablo Wright*

For Argentines, driving, riding bikes, walking or commuting in the streets are highly complicated – or even impossible- issues. However, we have become used to them and we can deal with different situations. As natives of this homeland, we have our own culture of road behaviour.

This situation presents alarming figures in terms of injuries and fatalities in the street. In order to know the cultural variables of our road behaviour, we have been conducting an anthropological study on that topic with the Culturalia team of the Ethnology Section at the Anthropological Sciences Institute (FFyL-UBA) for many years. The aim of this transference project is to generate information and useful ideas to nourish public policies that are not only operational but also adapted to local customs.

Regarding this, we investigate empirical regularities from social anthropology, that is to say, behaviour patterns that in the end could be identified as stereotyped manoeuvres or “ethnomanoeuvres” whose cultural sense we are trying to find out. These ethnomanoeuvres generate the direct or indirect conditions for road accidents. For this reason, our motivation is to find a basic catalogue of them and- the most difficult task- elucidate its cultural sense, the collective social value they have.

We begin with the notion that a road issue is a social fact and as that it is framed in a story that, as the echoes of the big bang, creates structural conditions of this vital field just as we currently see, live and feel it. In other words, it is central to understand how road behaviour has been historically shaped. At this point, the role of the State is of vital importance in the definition of citizenship and how that behaviour was controlled and shaped within the legal frameworks, which is the primary role of a modern nation-state.

For this reason, the notion of culture and social fact should be accompanied by the citizenship one, because we think that in each road gesture, however small it may be, our performance shows our citizenship status.

Regarding this, we carried out field observations in intersections with and without traffic lights, in routes and motorways, or in daily departure from schools. We noticed that our attitude towards traffic signs or rules seems to be like a creative and spoiled interpretation exercise. Thus, we transform those traffic signs into symbols that invariably need interpretation. This repeated behaviour could be related to our attitude as citizens, which is learnt and is not part of the nature of the world.

For this reason, we consider that social systems shape the behaviour of road users according to the historical processes through which they have undergone, that is to say, the road habitus in terms of Bourdieu.

We obtained empirical evidence of the regularities of road habitus in recent research conducted in 2012 at the request of the Defensor del Pueblo dela Provincia de Buenos Aires in order to provide information to improve road safety.

After undertaking fieldwork in ten towns and cities chosen according to the electoral district, we observed that, in general, regarding the right of way (system, in which a driver of a vehicle is required to give way to vehicles approaching from the right), 72 % did not give way; 69.91 % did not wear helmet. Concerning the most frequent offences, the most common ones were: lack of seat-belt use (48.73 %), lack of helmet (19.18 %), and children sitting in the front seat of a vehicle without belt (8.13 %).

As a result, we noticed that people who did not know each other had the same behaviour and habits and what united them was to be citizens of this county and share the Argentine road culture.

The anthropological perspective seeks to identify the collective and cultural part of everyday life and deconstruct the common sense that makes us behave in the streets without critical awareness. This project aims to objectify road behaviour and its cultural senses in order to address (correct, rethink) aspects of road users that can be unavoidably improved with systemic and systematic state measures.

*Pablo Wright is a CONICET principal researcher. He is also the director of the Ethnological Section of the Institute of Anthropological Sciences, Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA).