Earlier this month, an article published in the University of Connecticut’s electronic newsletter, UConn Today, discussed the importance of considering race and culture in behavioral interventions. School psychology professors Tamika La Salle of UConn and Sara McDaniel of the University of Alabama were given a $2.4 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities. Their goal: to expand on this topic in behavioral research and to help improve behavioral interventions at 20 middle schools across Alabama (1).
This research study got me thinking about culture as it relates to transportation safety and I wondered…
How do cultural differences influence travel behavior and traffic engineering?
Culture in it’s most basic definition, refers to a group or population’s beliefs, customs and traditions. Cultural ideology can derive from a person’s racial and ethnic identity, geographic location, or social groups. Anthropologists, sociologists and other social scientists who study cultural dynamics and their effect on social behavior often distinguish between individualistic and collectivist cultures. In individualistic cultures, emphasis is placed on personal identity and uniqueness and social behaviors are guided by the desires of the individual. Traits like autonomy are highly valued but dependency can be viewed as shameful or a form of failure (2). Individualistic cultures are commonly found in North American and Western European countries. Psychology professor Bernardo J. Carducci refers to these cultures as ‘complex societies’ because of the “flexibility to join various societal roles” (3, p. 4.14). In contrast, collectivist cultures place community well-being above individual needs. Typical of Asian and Eastern European countries, these cultures focus more on social cooperation and the betterment of the family and society. Denmark, Sweden, and Norway are some of the countries in this region often at the top of polls listing the countries thought to offer the best quality of life, citing better work-life balance and “strong social welfare networks” (4).
Individualistic Cultures: (U.S., Australia, Ireland, Germany, South Africa)
In transportation, speeding and other aggressive driving behaviors, a prevalent problem in the United States, may be a direct result of an individualistic culture. More than half of drivers in the U.S. consider speeding normal and a similar number report exhibiting aggressive driving behaviors after another driver has done the same to them. When you are used to relying on yourself and believe in individual accountability, you may be less patient and see others in the driving environment as impediments to your ultimate destination. This view is adopted in some deterrence strategies and traffic safety messaging. Enforcement messaging often focuses on the risk of monetary loss to the driver as punishment for unwanted behavior. Many educational tools focus on protection of one’s “self” from the rest of the collective traffic environment. Pedestrians and drivers are taught to be accountable for their own safety and behaviors while crossing the street or driving behind the wheel. This thought pattern is even apparent in how some describe the “other” in the traffic safety environment, i.e. drivers discussing pedestrians, pedestrians discussing cyclists, etc. You can read more about the perceptions of motorists and non-motorists here.
Collectivist Cultures: (Japan, India, Switzerland, Norway)
- Social Cooperation
The cultural ideology of working together as a group, a characteristic of collectivist cultures, can be seen in the engineering designs in Switzerland and Asia. Roadway infrastructure and modes of transportation are all developed with the collective traffic population in mind. Swiss trains that transport passengers all over the country announce each stop in several different languages to accommodate those who speak Italian, French, German, English and the lesser known language of Romansh. This is evidence of the cultural influence of the neighboring countries on Switzerland, in opposition to the U.S. where many cultures co-exist but are not always brought together. It is also not uncommon to see sidewalks and clearly designated bike and pedestrian paths built near roadways (images below). Shanghai, Seoul and Hong Kong, where are reported 90% of the population use public transportation, all have impressive subway and metro lines, praised for their cleanliness, speed and efficiency. These sophisticated modes of transportation are vital in these cities with a combined population of well over 43 million. Perhaps the vast population growth in these areas, challenges that North American countries may not be facing, has forced transportation planners to consider more creative ideas for expansion in the built environment.
Bicycle lanes and crosswalks in Switzerland
While individualistic and collectivist cultures may have what seems like obvious strengths and weaknesses in terms of public safety, the main objective is to point out that cultural influences can effect social behaviors in several ways. Discussing the differences between individualistic and collectivist cultures only scratches the surface of cultural dynamics. Traditions and beliefs associated with a person’s culture “effect every aspect of behavior” including career preference, interest in social issues and travel behavior choices (2). Individual travel behaviors may unknowingly be shaped by the traditionally adopted cultural norms of a geographic location. The built traffic environment is also a physical reflection of the cultural dynamics in an area. Traffic safety interventions focused on changing behavior can benefit from consideration of cultural differences and an improved understanding of how they influence a population’s driving habits.
1) Aldrich, Anna Zarra. (2019, Mar. 5). Incorporating Cultural Responsiveness into Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support Framework. UConn Today.
2) Cherry, K. (2018, Oct. 22). Individualistic Cultures and Behavior. Very Well Mind.
3) Carducci, B. J. (2014). Expressions of the Self in Individualistic vs. Collective Cultures: a cross-cultural-perspective teaching module. Psychology Learning and Teaching, 11(3), p. 43-417.
4) Mejia, Z. (2018, Jan 27.) These 10 countries have the best quality of life. CNBC Make it.