Fatalism, superstition, religion, and culture : road user beliefs and behaviour in Pakistan

Kayani, Ahsan Ul Haq (2011) Fatalism, superstition, religion, and culture : road user beliefs and behaviour in Pakistan. Masters by Research thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


Road traffic crashes have emerged as a major health problem around the world. Road crash fatalities and injuries have been reduced significantly in developed countries, but they are still an issue in low and middle-income countries. The World Health Organization (WHO, 2009) estimates that the death toll from road crashes in low- and middle-income nations is more than 1 million people per year, or about 90% of the global road toll, even though these countries only account for 48% of the world's vehicles. Furthermore, it is estimated that approximately 265,000 people die every year in road crashes in South Asian countries and Pakistan stands out with 41,494 approximately deaths per year. Pakistan has the highest rate of fatalities per 100,000 population in the region and its road crash fatality rate of 25.3 per 100,000 population is more than three times that of Australia's. High numbers of road crashes not only cause pain and suffering to the population at large, but are also a serious drain on the country's economy, which Pakistan can ill-afford.

Most studies identify human factors as the main set of contributing factors to road crashes, well ahead of road environment and vehicle factors. In developing countries especially, attention and resources are required in order to improve things such as vehicle roadworthiness and poor road infrastructure. However, attention to human factors is also critical. Human factors which contribute to crashes include high risk behaviours like speeding and drink driving, and neglect of protective behaviours such as helmet wearing and seat belt wearing. Much research has been devoted to the attitudes, beliefs and perceptions which contribute to these behaviours and omissions, in order to develop interventions aimed at increasing safer road use behaviours and thereby reducing crashes. However, less progress has been made in addressing human factors contributing to crashes in developing countries as compared to the many improvements in road environments and vehicle standards, and this is especially true of fatalistic beliefs and behaviours. This is a significant omission, since in different cultures in developing countries there are strong worldviews in which predestination persists as a central idea, i.e. that one's life (and death) and other events have been mapped out and are predetermined.

Fatalism refers to a particular way in which people regard the events that occur in their lives, usually expressed as a belief that an individual does not have personal control over circumstances and that their lives are determined through a divine or powerful external agency (Hazen & Ehiri, 2006). These views are at odds with the dominant themes of modern health promotion movements, and present significant challenges for health advocates who aim to avert road crashes and diminish their consequences. The limited literature on fatalism reveals that it is not a simple concept, with religion, culture, superstition, experience, education and degree of perceived control of one's life all being implicated in accounts of fatalism. One distinction in the literature that seems promising is the distinction between empirical and theological fatalism, although there are areas of uncertainty about how well-defined the distinction between these types of fatalism is.

Research into road safety in Pakistan is scarce, as is the case for other South Asian countries. From the review of the literature conducted, it is clear that the descriptions given of the different belief systems in developing countries including Pakistan are not entirely helpful for health promotion purposes and that further research is warranted on the influence of fatalism, superstition and other related beliefs in road safety. Based on the information available, a conceptual framework is developed as a means of structuring and focusing the research and analysis. The framework is focused on the influence of fatalism, superstition, religion and culture on beliefs about crashes and road user behaviour. Accordingly, this research aims to provide an understanding of the operation of fatalism and related beliefs in Pakistan to assist in the development and implementation of effective and culturally appropriate interventions. The research examines the influence of fatalism, superstition, religious and cultural beliefs on risky road use in Pakistan and is guided by three research questions: 1. What are the perceptions of road crash causation in Pakistan, in particular the role of fatalism, superstition, religious and cultural beliefs? 2. How does fatalism, superstition, and religious and cultural beliefs influence road user behaviour in Pakistan? 3. Do fatalism, superstition, and religious and cultural beliefs work as obstacles to road safety interventions in Pakistan? To address these questions, a qualitative research methodology was developed. The research focused on gathering data through individual in-depth interviewing using a semi-structured interview format. A sample of 30 participants was interviewed in Pakistan in the cities of Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad. The participants included policy makers (with responsibility for traffic law), experienced police officers, religious orators, professional drivers (truck, bus and taxi) and general drivers selected through a combination of purposive, criterion and snowball sampling. The transcripts were translated from Urdu and analysed using a thematic analysis approach guided by the conceptual framework.

The findings were divided into four areas: attribution of crash causation to fatalism; attribution of road crashes to beliefs about superstition and malicious acts; beliefs about road crash causation linked to popular concepts of religion; and implications for behaviour, safety and enforcement.

Fatalism was almost universally evident, and expressed in a number of ways. Fate was used to rationalise fatal crashes using the argument that the people killed were destined to die that day, one way or another. Related to this was the sense of either not being fully in control of the vehicle, or not needing to take safety precautions, because crashes were predestined anyway. A variety of superstitious-based crash attributions and coping methods to deal with road crashes were also found, such as belief in the role of the evil eye in contributing to road crashes and the use of black magic by rivals or enemies as a crash cause. There were also beliefs related to popular conceptions of religion, such as the role of crashes as a test of life or a source of martyrdom. However, superstitions did not appear to be an alternative to religious beliefs. Fate appeared as the 'default attribution' for a crash when all other explanations failed to account for the incident. This pervasive belief was utilised to justify risky road use behaviour and to resist messages about preventive measures. There was a strong religious underpinning to the statement of fatalistic beliefs (this reflects popular conceptions of Islam rather than scholarly interpretations), but also an overlap with superstitious and other culturally and religious-based beliefs which have longer-standing roots in Pakistani culture. A particular issue which is explored in more detail is the way in which these beliefs and their interpretation within Pakistani society contributed to poor police reporting of crashes. The pervasive nature of fatalistic beliefs in Pakistan affects road user behaviour by supporting continued risk taking behaviour on the road, and by interfering with public health messages about behaviours which would reduce the risk of traffic crashes. The widespread influence of these beliefs on the ways that people respond to traffic crashes and the death of family members contribute to low crash reporting rates and to a system which appears difficult to change. Fate also appeared to be a major contributing factor to non-reporting of road crashes. There also appeared to be a relationship between police enforcement and (lack of) awareness of road rules. It also appears likely that beliefs can influence police work, especially in the case of road crash investigation and the development of strategies.

It is anticipated that the findings could be used as a blueprint for the design of interventions aimed at influencing broad-spectrum health attitudes and practices among the communities where fatalism is prevalent. The findings have also identified aspects of beliefs that have complex social implications when designing and piloting driver intervention strategies. By understanding attitudes and behaviours related to fatalism, superstition and other related concepts, it should be possible to improve the education of general road users, such that they are less likely to attribute road crashes to chance, fate, or superstition. This study also underscores the understanding of this issue in high echelons of society (e.g., policy makers, senior police officers) as their role is vital in dispelling road users' misconceptions about the risks of road crashes. The promotion of an evidence or scientifically-based approach to road user behaviour and road safety is recommended, along with improved professional education for police and policy makers.

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ID Code: 56433
Item Type: QUT Thesis (Masters by Research)
Supervisor: King, Mark
Keywords: fatalism, superstition, developing countries, Pakistan, road safety, culture, road traffic crashes, traffic law enforcement, islam, driver behaviour
Divisions: Current > Research Centres > Centre for Accident Research & Road Safety - Qld (CARRS-Q)
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Health
Current > Schools > School of Psychology & Counselling
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 15 Jan 2013 00:46
Last Modified: 06 Dec 2013 02:05

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