Social Awareness

P Plates, Stereotypes and ‘Plater Haters’

Can symbols such as the P plate become stereotypes that influence behaviour?

Research shows that stereotypes can prime behaviour, causing people who are not members of the stereotype group to to act in the same way they believe the stereotype behaves (1). What that means is that we can behave just as we believe the the stereotype does, even if we do not see ourselves as belonging to that group. So, it seems stereotyping may have a deeper social impact than we think.

Let’s consider what I believe is an interesting example of behaviours triggered by a stereotype.

What kind of behaviours do P plates trigger?

The photo on this post shows a car with a green P or ‘green plate’ For those of you who don’t already know, the symbol identifies a probationary driver in the state of Victoria, Australia (2). The plates identify drivers according to their level of driving experience and licence type. They assist police to make sure the laws are followed and warn other drivers to be careful since these drivers are still learning the ropes. These plates however, have come to symbolise more than the licensing system, and can trigger other behaviours as a result.

For example, if you are between the ages of 15-21, the plate indicates a peer driver, so it becomes a cue to either ‘check’ if you know them, or simply ‘check them out’ (or both). If you are the driver, the plate also symbolises a rite of passage, a mark of achievement and even status. These meanings serve to reinforce attitudes or behaviours such as overconfidence and risk-taking. Although for a great number of cautious learner and probationary drivers, it is inexperience and not their attitude, which leads to mistakes in their driving. Either way, the chances of these drivers making mistakes is high; which is expected, since they are still learning. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that lead to the plates system in the first place, but it is also responsible for triggering another interesting series of behaviours.


Plate Driver Stereotypes

Stereotypes as we know, are generalisations that often lead to assumptions and prejudice. It appears the plates have come to symbolise driver stereotypes. As a result, other drivers on the road are not responding to the car in front of them on a case by case. Instead, they respond based on a generalised assumption associated with the plate. Here are some examples I’ve noticed:


L Plate ‘Speed Madness’ Trigger

For example, drivers often assume that all ‘L’ platers are by default, driving significantly under the speed limit, even when they are not. This assumption often leads full licensed drivers to exceed the speed limit in order to overtake the ‘L’ plater at any cost. It is as if the mere presence of the ‘L’ triggers a state of panic in drivers, causing them to forget the road rules. They speed up, overtake on the left and clip in front of the ‘L’ plater, leaving them wide-eyed and terrified. On some occasions they squeeze between parked cars to overtake, or fail to give way; anything to get away from the ‘L’ plated car that threatens to steal a few extra seconds of their time.


P Plate ‘Road-rage’ trigger and other random behaviours

The ‘P plate’ in turn, appears to elicit an even stronger reaction.Reckless driving is expected from the ‘P’ plater at all times. Here, the stereotype is the overconfident, reckless and aggressive young driver. These assumptions predispose other drivers and reduce their tolerance levels.

Again, the behaviours of a few cause this generalised assumption. The mistakes of many cautious P Platers are caused by inexperience. Sadly, it is not uncommon to see very reckless driving from fully licensed drivers around P platers. I have seen drivers squeeze between parked cars to overtake them on the left. Others overtake, nearly clip, and then slow down in front of them. I have seen trucks tailgating a P plater on the left lane. On one occasion, a driver fails to give way and a P plater crashes into them. Later, the driver says: ‘Let’s see who they will believe, a 30 y/old or a P plater”. By far, the worst behaviour I’ve witnessed.

By the way, don’t forget to take down the P plate after your teenager has used the car. Your biggest concern will not be the fine (should you get pulled over). Nor the disappointed look when young people ‘check you out’ (although you’ll get a laugh out of that). It will be finding yourself surrounded by erratic and aggressive drivers primed by the stereotype.

This all leads me to question: Has the display of the plates become a hazard? Shouldn’t fully licensed drivers set an example for those learning? Is something else going on?


Text & Images: Mithzay Pomenta

DeMaree, Kenneth G., S. Christian Wheeler, Richard E. Petty (2005). Priming a New Identity: Self-Monitoring Moderates the Effects of Nonself Primes on Self-Judgements and Behaviour. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 89(5). (657-671).
In compliance with the licensing system, teenagers learning to drive must display these ‘plates’ as they indicate the achieved driving level. Based on driver experience, the system limits what drives can do. This reduce accidents. Restrictions include supervision by a fully licensed driver, restriction on number of passengers under 21, car type, alcohol and drug levels, mobile phone use (no hands free or texting), and a reduced amount of demerit points for infractions (5 in a year or 12 in three years). For more details see:

* Originally published as : P’s