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French Warn Parents of an Underestimated Roadway Danger: Toxic Masculinity

Graphic: Jose Carbajal

A new French safety campaign is warning parents that they may play a far bigger role in preventing car crashes than they might think — and that they can save lives by teaching their children about the dangers of toxic masculinity long before they ever get behind the wheel.

In what may be a global first, French officials have launched a multi-platform campaign informing the public that 78 percent of people who die on the country's roads identify as men — a number, by the way, that's not all that far off from the U.S., where the average is 72 percent.

Interestingly, the new ad doesn't even mention cars, roads, or even driving, apart from that single, alarming stat. Instead, it features documentary footage by Rémi Bezançon about fathers' first moments with their children in the delivery room, along with a poetic voiceover about the kind of person a father might hope that baby will grow up to be — "a sensitive man, a man who cries, who knows how to have a heart."

Embracing those values, the campaign argues, doesn't just set children up for a good life — they actually save lives on the road, too.

In a study accompanying the campaign, researchers found that familiar toxic masculine stereotypes "are easily reflected behind the wheel" among male-identified drivers, including disturbingly violent beliefs about appropriate ways to express their frustration with other people on the road, as well as men's "natural aptitude for driving" — even when they're drunk or traveling at dangerous speeds.

Respondents, for instance, often agreed with statements like “[If another driver] annoys me by wanting to overtake me, I won't let him” "and "I go a bit fast, but I'm in control," as well as "Two drinks won't change my behavior." 

The officials behind the French campaign are not the first to argue that toxic masculinity could explain why people of all genders don't die at proportional rates on global roadways. In virtually every country in the world for which data is available, male traffic violence victims outnumber females by a factor of at least two; even Vision Zero leaders like the Netherlands and Finland report a ratio of around three to one.

In the U.S., those discrepancies are typically attributed to two things: men generally travel more miles than women, and that they tend do riskier things when they're out on the road. Behind the wheel, that means that men are more often arrested for drunk driving, are caught speeding, and are ejected from a cars during a crash because they weren't wearing a seatbelt, along with a litany of other traffic dangers.

Those two general hypotheses tend to carry over to how men behave outside of cars, too. On bikes, male riders in the U.S. significantly outnumber females overall, and while there isn't a lot of data on how many miles they ride or how they behave while they do it, surveys show that men are more likely to make the risky choice of prioritizing a direct route over a safe and separated one. That could help explain why in the U.S., a staggering eight out of nine bicyclists who die on U.S. roads are men.

Male pedestrians in the U.S., meanwhile, are also significantly more likely to be killed by a motorirst, despite the fact that they're taller on average than women and less likely to be struck at the head or neck level by America's fast-growing fleet of SUVs and trucks. Unlike drivers and cyclists, researchers say that's actually not because men travel significantly more miles by foot, but because they're more likely to walk in environments where a crash will result in a death, like "crossing a 50 mile per hour road," to cite one example from the researchers.

Of course, many safe streets advocates would probably agree that getting 50 mile per hour roads out of U.S. neighborhoods would help save the lives of people of all genders. That doesn't mean, though, that even more lives couldn't be saved by researching the complex question of why, exactly, men are so likely to spend so much time and take so many risks on the road — and taking action to address those root causes.

In an interview with the Guardian about the new French campaign, sociologist Alain Mergier postulates that the car has become "a symbolic object of masculinity, male identity and virility" in French culture, and that young males are often called upon to "prove [themselves] by 'mastering' a vehicle, such as accelerating or breaking speed limits to show, ‘I’m a real man.’"

Whether those hypotheses are true for male-identified people around the world, of course, isn't clear yet, nor is it clear whether education campaigns like the new ad will have an effect in uprooting such deeply-embedded cultural beliefs. One PSA alone probably won't have the same impact as, say, fining automakers who produce car commercials that explicitly tie masculinity to owning a big truck and driving it dangerously (yes, even if that car is electric), incorporating education about common toxic masculine stereotypes into mandatory drivers' education programs, or even simply recognizing that roadway aggression is often a symptom of a larger cultural and emotional problem, and expanding access to therapy for men to help address it.

Still, it's heartening to see France beginning to untangle the difficult but critical question of why so many more men and boys are dying on the same roads that people of all genders travel every day. And it's even more heartening to see them doing something – anything — about it.

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