Thursday, July 1, 2010

Asian drivers are safer. Seriously?

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

East beats West when it comes to road manners and safety
PEOPLE born in Asian countries are safer drivers than those born in Australia, according to traffic safety researchers.
Young drivers born in Asia had half the risk of being involved in a traffic crash compared with their Australian-born counterparts, a study of 20,000 P-plate drivers in NSW found.
They were also less likely to speed, tailgate and drive while distracted by things such as mobile phones and loud music, compared with drivers born here and in other countries.

Soufiane Boufous, the study leader and a senior research fellow in injury and epidemiology at the George Institute for International Health at the University of Sydney, said his team wanted to identify and help particular ethnic groups that were more at risk of accidents.
''But then we found it was the Australian-born people who had the higher risk [and] Asian drivers were the least likely to take risks,'' he said.
More than 31 per cent of drivers born in Australia, and 30 per cent of those born in regions outside Australia and Asia, admitted to risky behaviours. But only about 25 per cent of those born in Asia admitted to the same behaviours, he wrote in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention.
Dr Boufous said Asian-born drivers might have been safer than others born overseas in part because the Asian people in the study tended to have lived in Australia for a shorter time.
''We found that the longer people stay here the more likely they are to change and become similar to the Australian-born people,'' he said.
A clinical psychologist, Jeroen Decates, said young people who had grown up in Australia tended to be more likely to break rules and take risks than those from many Asian countries.
Yet the stereotype that Asian drivers were not good drivers persisted.
Much of the reason for the stereotype might be that people are more likely to notice when someone from an Asian background drove badly than when someone from a different background did because it confirmed their beliefs.
''When everyone else says something we are more likely to think it must be true,'' he said. ''We always look for confirmations of our own beliefs.''

Interesting. Stereotype debunked, then?
I'm happy to have a study to quote next time someone decides to unthinkingly brand Asians as bad drivers. "Hah! How you like them apples?" I can say.
At the same time, I am a little puzzled. And some of y'all may not like me for this. Because I confess, I happen to believe the stereotype, at least to a certain extent.

Now believe me, as a person of Asian extraction I have absolutely no interest in having the Asians-as-bad-drivers stereotype proven true. I wince every time I see an Asian driver doing something stupid, and I'd love to be able to confidently claim driving as yet another thing Asians excel at.

But I have my doubts. Because I see a lot of Asians out on the roads driving in a manner fully in keeping with the negative stereotype of them.

Maybe the last line of that article is true: ''When everyone else says something we are more likely to think it must be true... We always look for confirmations of our own beliefs.''

I had never had any presupposed notion that Asians were bad drivers until my late teens, when I heard a couple of people mention it. After that, I started noticing them EVERYWHERE. So maybe that's it. A lot of people from minority groups are extra sensitive about how other members of their group behave in public; it's part of a desire that your fellow ethnics "represent" well in front of the mainstream majority.

My own take the Asians-as-bad-drivers idea has been that it's not so much an Asian thing as an immigrant thing. Meaning that people who grow up in Australia tend to learn the Australian driving culture; those who move here after learning to drive elsewhere might take some of the habits of their mother country with them, habits which might be fine there but are jarring when transplanted onto Australian roads. (The same way I struggle to drive in Malaysia because I'm not accustomed to the norms of Malaysian roads.) I figured that Asians get all the negative attention in Australia because they are more easily identified as being foreign. A European migrant might get noticed as a bad driver, but not perceived as foreign. An Asian migrant who drives badly in a 90% white country cannot hide their "foreignness".

And given that all of us do some dumb sh*t on the roads from time to time, of course you will see Asians doing some of that dumb sh*t. You'll see white folks doing it too, but you'll be less likely to see them as a "bloody white driver", because in a mostly white country, whiteness is the default and therefore mostly invisible.


The study you read above is about safe drivers. And this is the other factor to remember when considering whether one particular group is better or worse behind the wheel than any other. Is being a "safe driver" the same as being a "good driver"?

When asked "what makes a good driver?" each of us will think about different aspects of driving. For example, the ability to get a car to perform at its best under various sorts of conditions. Or it could be showing courtesy to others on the road. Or observance of all the road rules; or of all those "unwritten road rules" which just about every driver in a given country understands. Or it could be that instinctive feel for what is happening on the road around you.

Those are all important aspects of driving. However, you'd have to recognise that probably the most important aspect to being a good driver is that you don't go around crashing into things. Whether or not you are a super-courteous driver who knows all the road rules to the letter, if you keep on having accidents, you are quite possibly not a good driver.

I definitely observe plenty of Asian drivers young and old who seem to lack sufficient knowledge of road rules, in particular the unwritten rules. And plenty who drive as if they are oblivious to what others on the road are doing or trying to do. I don't know if I see Asians behaving this way more than anyone else, but my preconception about Asians being bad drivers has been based largely on these things.

But are they actually causing accidents? If the study is correct, then no, not as much as the rest of the population. And clearly that's the statistic that really matters.

I quietly consider myself a vastly superior driver to most, but the people who process my accident insurance claims might have a different point of view on that. And they don't even know about the minor scrapes I don't claim, let alone the near misses. I occasionally tease one of my Asian buddies about what I consider his granny-like approach to driving speed, but I'll also admit he's a lot more careful than I am. I'll get somewhere 20 seconds quicker than he, but he's probably less likely to have run someone over on the way.

If an Asian guy cuts in front of you without signalling, or drives at 46kmph in front of you when the speed limit is 60, that's merely annoying. But if a non-Asian guy's car ploughs into you while you are out walking your dog because he was speeding and distracted by trying to select a new track on his MP3 player... well, I know which one I'd prefer.

More like this...

Ah, the insanity of driving in Malaysia

Asians accused of being bad drivers - by a senior citizen

Eliot Chang on being asked racist questions about Asians


  1. I never heard about Asians being bad drivers until I was in my early twenties, probably because I grew up around a LOT of Asian people - and the first time I heard it was from an Italian guy and a Lebanese girl who BETWEEN THEM had one license point left due to speeding and other violations. I absolutely think that confirmation bias has a lot to do with this stereotype - you aren't ticking off every white driver you see because they haven't got anything attached to them like Asian drivers do.

    Also, BTW, the worst drivers in my town are consistently anyone on a cellphone, usually young white women but really the cellphone is the most common factor.

  2. The thing is, Asians are typically more CAUTIOUS drivers. And they expect other road users to exhibit the same level of cautiousness, but that's not the case. Being too cautious is not the same thing as bad driving - although most white people think it is the same thing.

    White people are more AGGRESSIVE and IMPATIENT drivers. Sometimes I think white people genetically have aggression problems (no offense but I think its true). They also tend to have rationalization and narccistic issues, as well as being overconfident. Intentional bad driving is STILL bad driving. I don't care how I get hit. If you hit me because you were intentionally tailgating me, I will make life difficult for you in court. If you hit me because you made an honest mistake, at least it was an honest mistake but you will pay for my car.

    1. Ok so I generalized...but hey, Asians drivers get the generalization stick a lot too. Are most Asians unaware of that generalization? Probably not, they just aren't aggressive enough to retaliate. I have a more aggressive streak I guess.

      Another thing is the need to differentiate between Asian drivers vs Australian drivers who happen to be Asian. If it's the former we're always talking about, then it would imply a genetic disposition to be a "bad" driver...