There's plenty of anecdotal evidence that car and driver stereotypes are commonplace. Only last spring, London Mayor Ken Livingstone branded urban drivers of 4 X 4 vehicles as "idiots". But there's little evidence concerning how such stereotypes might affect people's allocation of blame in controversial accidents.
Graham Davies (University of Leicester) and Darshana Patel (UCL) first established that 24 undergraduates consistently rated some car brands and colours as more aggressive than others. The Ford Escort XR3i, red cars, and young males were each rated as the most aggressive model, colour and driver, respectively. The Citroen 2CV, beige cars and elderly women were consistently rated the least aggressive.
In a second experiment, 81 members of a community sample read an account of a collision between a Ford Escort Xr3i, driven by a young man, and a Citroen 2CV, driven by an elderly man. They also read fictional driver statements, each blaming the other. Afterwards, the participants consistently allocated more blame to the Escort, and rated its speed as faster and its position as more erratic, even though they'd been given no objective facts to suggest this was true.
A final experiment found that car and driver stereotypes interact in subtle ways. For example, in another fictional crash scenario, a red car was later estimated by participants to be going five mph faster than the average, but only when the driver was described as a young male.
If stereotypes also affect how witnesses recall crash events, the authors said, then potentially "the young driver of a stereotypically aggressive car involved in an accident could be in danger of suffering double jeopardy: biased testimony from witnesses, combined with distorted judgments by decision makers".
Davies, M.D. & Patel, D. (2005). The influence of car and driver stereotypes on attributions of vehicle speed, position on the road and culpability in a road accident scenario. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 10, 45-64.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.