Subproject: The Social Perception of Driving Bans

The Social Perception of Driving Bans for Older Diesel Cars in Stuttgart


Researchers: Marco Sonnberger and Matthias Leger


  • Research questions: Which different interpretive schemes regarding driving bans exist among citizens of Stuttgart and the Stuttgart region? How are they structured? Which aspects are accentuated, problematized, or ignored? How are these aspects accentuated or problematized?
  • Theory: Sociology of knowledge, risk perception
  • Methods: Focus groups, grounded theory


On the 1st of January 2019, the city of Stuttgart (Germany) has established driving bans for older diesel cars forced to do so by a verdict of a regional administrative court stressing that citizens have to be protected from damage to health caused by excess of NO2 limit values.


During November and December 2018, we carried out seven focus groups with citizens of Stuttgart and the Stuttgart region using different means of transportation (car, public transport, bike) for their everyday travel to work. With regard to their everyday experience of mobility, we were especially interested in their perception of the driving bans in the context of ongoing mobility transition in German cities.


Our research reveals complex perceptual patterns encompassing the deconstruction of air pollution measurement as well as the process of setting air quality standards, doubts about the effectiveness of driving bans and blaming of different actors for the current situation, which is perceived as socially unjust. Analytically, we were able to identify three different interpretive schemes which we have labeled ‘symbolic politics’, ‘reasonable skepticism’ and ‘politically caused injustice’. All of these schemes are to some degree related with distrust in policy-makers.


While in the interpretive scheme ‘symbolic politics’ air pollution is considered as a serious health risk and the political-administrative system is perceived as unwilling to take serious action against this issue, the interpretive scheme ‘reasonable skepticism’ questions the negative effects of older diesel cars on air quality justified on basis of a perceived experts dilemma. Thus, these two interpretive schemes can be seen as two sides of the same medal. The interpretive scheme ‘politically caused injustice’ however is independent of the recognition, negation or relativization of air pollution issues. In this interpretive scheme, driving bans are portrayed as a socially unjust measure. This perception of injustice is accompanied by articulations of solidarity with diesel-owners and blaming of policy-makers. This is based on the conception of a social dichotomy of ordinary people vs. an alleged political-industrial alliance.


Overall, we find that opposition to driving bans can be understood as part of a more general alienation from decision-making elites and distrust of scientific expertise, which particularly finds its expression in an us vs. them mentality.


A journal article illustrating the findings of our analysis in detail can be found here.