Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Driving Cultures: Cars, Young People and Cultural Research

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Driving Cultures: Cars, Young People and Cultural Research

Article excerpt

The car is a dominant feature of life in Australia. This enthusiastic embrace of cars is due in part to the vast distances and relatively low population size, but it is also due to a longstanding emphasis on individual privacy and mobility. The suburban sprawl around towns and cities has been made possible by cars and at the very same time facilitated their uptake and ongoing use. The car is more than just a means of transportation, however, and has increasingly created its own necessity. The number of cars on the roads increases by thousands each year, but particular concern is currently focused on young people as they gain access to cars and develop various 'driving cultures', since they are also involved in a high proportion of motor vehicle crashes.1 Driving is for them part of becoming adult, seeking independence and venturing further from home for pleasure, work and study. The embrace of the car by young people, and often the resulting carnage, needs to be addressed from a number of directions, including the full investigation of contributing cultural factors.

Driving Cultures brings a cultural approach to an area dominated by psychological analyses of individual behaviour and frameworks of understanding that focus on rational behaviour and wilfulness.2 Such forms of analysis, I argue here, are inadequate for a proper understanding of driving practice as they lack sufficient connection to the broader context of driving, the symbolic dimensions of the car and a detailed understanding of the social norms operating within driving as a cultural practice. There has been considerable focus on the individual, and individual driving behaviour, in advertising, research and enforcement, but there is a pressing need for more emphasis on the socially interactive nature of driving, as well as the cultural factors that shape it into the particular practice it is today.

In many countries in the Western world cars continue to be given priority in transport planning. At the same time, more young drivers are killed and seriously injured than any other age group. In New South Wales, for example, 17-25 year olds hold 11% of licenses and represent 16% of deaths in cars, and Australia-wide young drivers represent about 25% of the death toll. International and local research suggests that young drivers are more likely to speed, more likely to engage in risky behaviours on the roads, have a higher risk of crashing with passengers in the car, lack experience and have a tendency to feel overconfident and to over-estimate their level of skill.3 The young driver 'problem' is a phenomenon of Western countries that has become more apparent as more young people are able to gain access to cars and more are gaining their licenses as soon as they are old enough; this is also the case in Australia.

While road safety research has barely looked beyond the significance of the car in a functional sense, cultural research has begun to investigate the values and meanings that are attached to the car, enabling a greater focus on the car as a shaping force in contemporary culture, shaping not only the way we live but who we are.4 This perspective is crucial if we are to understand young people's engagement with cars. Having access to a car and being able to drive contribute significantly to Western living, identity and independence. With cars increasing in power and acceleration and able to travel at faster speeds, many young drivers take to them with enthusiasm, embracing everything the car is purported to offer, but the particular values that have been promoted by and in turn promote car use, have not in any way been sufficiently investigated.


The car is the emblem of convenience, independence and privacy, even though it is far more dangerous as a mode of transport than bus or train.5 Insufficient development of public transport in Australia has clearly contributed to the greater emphasis placed on the car. …

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