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A little over a week ago our university introduced the compulsory wearing of face masks indoors. This included wearing of masks in classrooms as well as common areas and offices. Some may argue that the new rules were introduced a little too late in the day, whilst I’m sure others will point to the fact that government guidance is that the wearing of face masks is advisory and therefore the introduction of the new rules was unwarranted. Let’s be honest the government and their political party haven’t set much of an example regarding the basic safety ideas, let alone rules, as evidenced by the recent Conservative party conference. The new rules at the university, however, are not enforced, instead there is a reliance that students and staff will comply. This of course creates several dilemmas for students and staff where there is a failure to comply and it makes for some interesting observations about general human behaviour and deviance. To that extent, university life might be viewed as a microcosm of life in the general population and this lends itself quite nicely to the analogy of behaviours whilst driving on a road.
Driving behaviours vary, from those drivers that consistently and diligently stick to the speed limit despite what others may be doing, to those that have complete disregard for limits or indeed others including those that police the roads. Let us be quite clear at this stage, speed limits are nearly always there for a reason. There is ample research that speed kills and that reductions in speed limits injuries and saves life. Whilst those drivers that drive over the speed limit will not always be involved in a collision and that a collision will not always result in serious injury or death, there is a much greater potential for this. The risks of course are spread across the population in the locality, the impact is not just felt by the speeding driver but other drivers and pedestrians as well. To some extent we can make the comparison to the risks associated with catching Covid and the wearing of masks and social distancing, failure to comply increases risks to all. As a quick reminder, the wearing of masks is to protect others more so than it is to protect the individual mask wearer.
Observations of behaviours regarding staff and students wearing masks at the university are interesting. There are those that comply, regardless of what others are doing, some of these will have been wearing masks indoors before the new rules came in. Not dissimilar to the careful driver, sticking to the speed limit but also prepared to drive slower where they perceive there is a greater risk. Then there is the well-intentioned mask wearer, the one that knows the rules and will stick to them but through absent mindedness or through some of life’s many distractions, they fail to wear their masks at various points of the day. As with the well-meaning driver, they are easily reminded and often apologetic, even if it is only to themselves. Of course, there is the ‘follow the flock’ wearer, the person that could quite easily be persuaded to not wear their mask by the rest of the flock as they fail to wear theirs. The driver that joins the rest and drives at 40mph in a 30mph limit because the rest of the traffic is doing so. Next is the deviant that has disregard for the rules as long as no one in authority is looking. The person that keeps their mask handy, probably under their chin and then when challenged in some way, perhaps by a disapproving look from a member of staff or by a direct challenge, puts their mask on but only for the duration they are under observation. Not dissimilar to the speedster that slows down when they see a police vehicle or a static speed camera only to speed up again when the danger of being caught and sanctioned has passed. Finally, there is the person that has complete disregard for any rules, they will blatantly fail to wear a mask and wave away with complete disdain any attempt by student ambassadors positioned at the door to offer them a mask. They like the speeding driver that fails to obey any of the rules of the road have complete disregard for the rules or indeed any rules.
Whilst we may lament the fact that some people forget, are distracted but are generally well meaning, we probably wouldn’t want to impose any sanction for their deviance. But what of those that have complete disregard for the rules? It is worth returning here to the general ethos of wearing masks; to protect others. The disregard for the rules is inter alia a disregard for the safety of others. Whilst we might observe that the deviancy is apparent amongst several students (a problem that might be generalised to society), it is somewhat disconcerting that there are a significant number of staff who clearly do not think the rules apply to them. They seem to neither care about their colleagues nor the students and it would seem consider themselves above the rules. Another comparable trait in general society where those in positions of power seem to have a disregard for rules and others. Finally, we might consider how we could police these new rules as clearly our university society of students and staff are unable to do so. I can hear the cries now, haven’t you got anything better to do, this is a sledgehammer to crack a nut and all the usual rhetoric endured by the police across the land. If you make a rule, you must be prepared to enforce it otherwise there’s no point in having it. Imposing an unenforceable rule is simply playing politics and attempting to appease those that question the conditions in which students and staff work. Imagine speed limits on the road but no enforcement cameras, no police and no sanctions for breaches. It will be interesting to see how long the general population at the university follow the new rules, recent observations are that the flock of sheep mentality is starting to come to the fore. As a parting thought, isn’t it amazing how easy it is to study crime and deviance.
One thing we criminologists know is that it is impossible to prevent crime. Many a great criminologist has tried to theorise why crime occurs (my shelves are full of their books) and whilst almost all have made valuable contributions to our understanding of crime, it is an unfortunate fact that crime continues. But then crime itself is difficult to define and has its basis in time, power, opportunity and social discourses. What is criminal today will not be criminal tomorrow and what is important today will lose its importance tomorrow, in favour of some new or maybe, old, manifestation of that elusive concept we call crime. Perhaps we should we grateful, for in the industry of crime lies mass employment. From criminologists to those that attempt to stem the tide of crime, those that deal with its aftermath and those that report on it or write about it (real or fictional), there is money to be made. If we stopped crime, we would all be out of a job.
Most, if not all of us have at some stage in our lives committed some sort of crime. Most crimes will fortunately be almost inconsequential, maybe a flouting of a law such as driving a car over the speed limit. Other crimes will be more serious and whilst some criminals will be brought to book most are not. The inconsequential crime of driving over the speed limit, albeit perhaps due to a lapse of concentration, can have dire consequences. There is clear evidence that the survival rates of pedestrians struck by cars has a direct correlation with speed. So the inconsequential becomes the consequential, the ephemerality of crime, the reality.
When we think of crime, we often have little concept of its reality. We apply labels and our own rules to that we know and find acceptable. Speeding is not criminal, well not generally, unless it’s a boy racer. Drink driving is a no-no, but we might take it to the alcohol limit when having a drink. Drugs (the criminalised type) are ok, well some are and some aren’t, it all depends on your viewpoint. Drugs (the prescription type) are ok, even if they impair our ability to drive. Alcohol, well that’s absolutely ok, even if the abuse of it leads to more deaths than drugs and the consequences of that misuse has a really significant impact on the NHS. Tax evasion, illegal if you get caught, ok if you don’t. A bit like fraud really, ok if you can get away with it but then maybe not, if the victim is a little old lady or me. Assault, well it depends on the seriousness and the situation and probably the victim. Robbery, not good to go into an off licence with a gun and threaten the shopkeeper, bullying if you take lunch money off the lad outside the school gates.
Criminals don’t walk around with a label that says ‘criminal’ and even if they did, there would have to be a method of bestowing the label in an instance. Nonsense of course, only a fool would suggest such a thing. What about the people that committed a crime but have changed their ways I hear my colleagues ask? What about those that haven’t, or have and then relapse, I reply.
Nothing is black and white; the concept of crime is elusive, as are criminals (both by concept and nature). And yet we happily castigate those that attempt to uphold the law on our behalf and in doing so view crime and criminals as clear concepts. Each has a clear label, each is clearly identifiable, so how can they get it so wrong so many times. Whilst criticising those that attempt, and let’s be quite honest, fail most of the time to stem this tide of crime, perhaps we might also think about the impossibility of the job in hand. That’s not to say that a lot of the criticisms are not justified, nor that things should not change, but if we only examine all that is wrong, we lose sight of reality and only an intransigent fool would continue an argument that sees the problems and solutions as simply black and white.
Vehicles are lethal weapons, we all recognise that, particularly after the reminders given to us by the terrorist attacks across Europe. Every year in this country, there are more people killed on the roads than there are as a result of murder and yet people still drive on the roads like complete morons. It seems that driving cars, vans, and lorries brings out aggressive behaviour that to most would seem quite out of character. A good few years ago, the media castigated ‘White Van Man’, the drivers of white vans that displayed all the worst of driving behaviours, in particular positioning their vehicles aggressively so close to another vehicles’s rear bumper that they might as well have been sitting in the boot.
The shame of it is that White Van Man is now replaced by the general driving public. Gender and age seem to have no bearing on the manner of driving. Minor mistakes and indiscretions by other drivers are punished with blaring horns, flashing headlights and hand gestures more at home on the football terraces, although if you watched the recent England game, you might suggest on the pitch as well. Drivers barge their way past parked cars despite oncoming traffic and drive at speeds exceeding the speed limit. The dual carriageway that reverts to a single carriageway sees drivers racing to get ahead of each other determined not to let anyone into the now single file of traffic.
And yet, introduce a capable guardian, I borrowed the term from Felson’s 1998 Routine Activity Theory, and behaviour seems to change almost instantaneously; let me explain. The village I live in is fairly large and sits on the outskirts of a county town. The village is expanding rapidly and consequently through traffic can be quite considerable, particularly during school runs. This accompanied by pedestrians on narrow pathways and the gaggle of school children massing around the bus stop waiting for the bus to another village increases risk considerably. The road which meanders in and out of both semi-rural and urbanised space has a thirty mile an hour speed limit and the odd flashing sign that warns motorists to slow down. Not unreasonable given the volume of traffic and pedestrians and yet it has little meaning to drivers, including those carrying children in the car, who regularly exceed the speed limit. Dare to drive at thirty miles an hour and you will rapidly find cars sitting on your rear bumper itching to get by or aggressively getting closer and closer in an attempt to bully you into going faster. A slight glimpse of empty road sees overtaking manoeuvres more suitable to the Silverstone racetrack but accomplished by drivers who probably lack anything like the skill required. Demonic aggression and recklessness is the name of the game and yet the very same drivers will change their driving behaviour just a few minutes later.
About a mile from my village is a small hamlet dissected by a fairly busy road. The speed limit leading up to the hamlet is 40 miles an hour and the speed limit through the hamlet is 30 miles an hour. Watch vehicles traverse this stretch of road and you will see politeness, adherence to the speed limit and gaps between vehicles that would make the author of the highway code proud. Why such change in behaviour, you probably already know? Two somewhat insignificant, inconspicuous, despite the bright yellow paint, average speed cameras. Nobody knows if they function but they certainly work. It seems that altering driver behaviour is simply down to the presence of a capable guardian but it does beg the question why so many people have little regard for the law or their fellow human beings when they get into that driving seat.