UK public say no to smoking in public, traffic emissions remain acceptable

Britons are suffering from ‘motonormativity’: a built-in acceptance of risks and harms associated with driving and motor vehicles, despite similar levels of danger not being accepted in other aspects of life.

The results of a new study conduced by the University of West England, Swansea University, and Edinburgh Napier University, first published by The Guardian, reveal the phenomenon is widespread, and touches on everything from poor driving and road traffic accidents, to air pollution. 


2,000 people participated in the research, each randomly assigned one of two set questions to ascertain their views on driving-related risks, and an almost identical query relating to wider hazards in life. One example saw 75% of those involved agree that ‘people shouldn’t smoke in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in cigarette fumes’, while only 17% backed up the statement ‘people shouldn’t drive in highly populated areas where other people have to breathe in their car fumes’. 

‘It is nonsensical to say that making people breathe toxic air is a problem when it comes from a cigarette, but making people breathe toxic air is fine when it comes from a car,’ said Professor Ian Walker from Swansea University, lead author of the paper. ‘The underlying principle is the same, but people in our study were not using the same standards when they judged the two things.

‘These huge differences came from changing just one or two words in the questions. It’s long been suspected that people can slip unconsciously into using different standards when they think about driving, leading them to commit a fallacy known as ‘special pleading’,’ he continued. ‘Our study was intended to reveal this phenomenon and show just how substantial these effects can be.’ 

‘If all you’ve ever known is a world where the needs of motorists come first, there’s a good chance you’re going to start to understand that is the ‘normal’ or even the ‘proper’ way of things,’ added Dr Adrian Davis, also from the University of the West of England. ‘We saw evidence of that here. When we pulled out just the people in our survey who didn’t drive, we saw that even these people were using different standards when the questions asked about driving. Their answers tended to echo what the drivers were saying, meaning it’s not even simple self-interest at work. It’s got to be something deeper, rooted in our culture.’

Read our latest feature on the reality and dangers associated with nitrogen dioxide air pollution, one of the most dangerous forms of traffic-related air pollution


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1 year ago

Interesting. Denial that exhaust fumes & road surface particles are bad for us. But think how long it took for the public to accept that cigarettes are unhealthy? And many still smoke. It astonishes me that someone can stand over or near a bonfire for hours and thinks that alright. At least they can argue that they need their cars? Is it because once inside the vehicle, they are concentrating on driving and don’t see or smell the exhaust fumes? And they feel protected from any bad air outside? Then we need air pollution monitoring gadgets inside cars (instead of those awful sickly vanilla or peach flavoured air-fresheners). And boards beside or above the roads tellings us the current level of air quality, especially on motorways. Any chance?

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