Naive Explanations of Road Accidents: Self- Serving Bias and Defensive Attribution

Stéphanie Bordel, Gérard Guingouain, Alain Somat, Florence Terrade, Anne-Valérie Aubouin, Denis Querrat, Katell Botrel



The aim of this article is to take into account the explanations given by people involved in road accident (drivers, passengers and witnesses) so as to consider preconisation susceptible to improve road safety. Testimonies from 205 reports of the French “Gendarmerie Nationale” were analysed. The results show the existence of actor (driver)/observer (passenger and witness) asymmetry in attribution. In fact, observers give as many internal explanations as external explanations, when actors give more external explanations than internal explanations. This result can be interpreted in term of self-serving bias (in so far as we note an effect of the severity of the outcomes on the drivers' explanations) and also can be interpreted according to the theory of defensive attribution (even if we fail to show that observers' explanations can be influenced by accident severity). Actors and observers explain events with different categories (actor/observer asymmetry bias), but use the same motivational strategies of protection: drivers would try to protect their self-esteem in order to avoid being held responsible for the accident (self-serving bias), while observers would try to protect themselves (defensive attribution) from the idea that they could find themselves in the same situation. Finally, we examine some preconisations likely to enhance the road safety.


explanation;attribution;actor/observer bias;self-serving bias;defensive attribution;traffic accidents


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