A road safety awareness campaign in France is tackling the role of gendered behaviour behind the wheel, warning for the first time that toxic masculinity could be as important a contributing factor to road deaths as speed, alcohol, drugs and fatigue.
The campaign’s video – released for the web, TV cinemas on Wednesday – shows men at the births of their sons and seeks to portray them as thoughtful and sensitive in contrast with the revved-up virility of macho stereotypes.
“Speed, alcohol, drugs, fatigue … what if we need to add masculinity?” asked the French road safety body of the list of factors that typically lead to road accidents.
In France, 78% of those killed in road accidents in 2022 were men – close to the average across the EU. Of French drivers aged 18 – to 24 killed on the road last year, 88% were men. Of people suspected to have caused road accidents, 84% were men, while men accounted for 93% of drunk drivers involved in an accident.
Florence Guillaume, the interministerial delegate for road safety in France, said the campaign was absolutely not about stigmatising or blaming men in general. “It is about prompting people to examine their behaviour,” she said.
Guillaume said the number of men dying on the roads was a serious issue and “does not mean all men are bad drivers – that is not true”. Instead, she said society should look deeper at behaviours such as risk-taking or the pressures on some men to show they could drive faster or seek to dominate the road.
The message of the video campaign is about urging men to resist social pressure. “You don’t have to follow what people expect of a man,” the voice of a new father tells his son in the clip.
The sociologist Alain Mergier carried out a study on masculinity and driving across all age groups for the campaign. He said: “It’s striking how certain stereotypes are persistently passed from father to son, including the car as a symbolic object of masculinity, male identity and virility. This isn’t given much thought and yet we can see the far-reaching impact on accidents.”
He said some boys and men were taught from childhood that the car was their symbol and it was through driving that they could “defend their manliness”.
He said the cultural notion that boys and men are instinctively “very familiar” with cars can quickly lead to an assumption that men instinctively “know how to drive”, which might bring over-confidence in dangerous situations.
“It could lead to the sense that a man has to prove himself by mastering a vehicle, such as accelerating or breaking speed limits to show ‘I’m a real man’,” Mergier added.
He said the instinct for some male drivers to compete after being overtaken by another car comes from a sense among some “that masculinity has to be defended, lest it be seen as fragile or vulnerable”.
“What’s important about this campaign is that it doesn’t stigmatise men, it suggests another vision of men and masculinity, which is not about confrontation, or being aggressive, but about sensitivity,” he said.