Viewpoint: Auto Safety: Enforcement, Not Education, Works

Consumers' Research Magazine, July 2001 | Go to article overview
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Viewpoint: Auto Safety: Enforcement, Not Education, Works

For more than 30 years, highway safety professionals have recognized that what's needed to reduce crash losses is a mix of measures aimed at drivers, vehicles, and the roadway environment. Today's vehicle- and road-safety programs are based largely on research and engineering. But when it comes to changing the behavior of drivers and others on the road, research findings often are ignored. Many programs are based on wishful thinking instead of science.

Because most motor vehicle crashes involve driver error, some people believe that improving driver behavior should be the overriding priority. Claims continue to be made that "getting rid of drunk drivers" or "improving driver skills" is more important than setting speed limits or equipping cars with airbags. Such claims persist despite evidence gathered over the years that many driver-oriented prescriptions are ineffective.

Education Alone Doesn't Work. Safe driving behaviors like staying within speed limits, heeding stop signs, and using safety belts have to be performed over and over again. Research indicates that education has no effect, or only a very limited effect, on behaviors like these. The education might increase drivers' knowledge (for example, about the benefits of using belts), but the expanded knowledge usually doesn't result in behavior changes.

Yet support persists for programs like high school driver education; motorcycle education and training; education to increase safety belt and helmet use; and improvement programs for problem drivers, young drivers, and/or drivers in general. Such programs are commonplace, but many of them never get evaluated, typically because of their common-sense appeal. "Who can argue against the benefits of education or training?" asks Insurance Institute for Highway Safety chief scientist Allan Williams. "But when good scientific evaluations are undertaken, most of the driver improvement programs based on education or persuasion alone are found not to work."

An example is driver education, the subject of worldwide review. According to Jon S. Vernick of Johns Hopkins University, author of one literature review: "There's no evidence that high school driver education reduces motor vehicle crash involvement rates for young drivers."

After reviewing motorcycle rider education/training programs in three countries, Dan Mayhew of Canada's Traffic Injury Research Foundation reports "no compelling evidence that rider training is associated with reductions in collisions." Nor does a study of a bicycle education program in Australia show any evidence that participation "led to a reduced risk of bicycle related injury in subsequent years."

The Australian "bike ed" program might even have made things worse by inadvertently leading children "to undertake a level of risky activity that they would not have attempted without the `license' provided by having completed the program." This is the conclusion of lead author John Carlin of the Murdoch Children's Research Institute and University of Melbourne.

Carlin isn't the only researcher to find that an education, persuasion, or training program might make things worse, either by increasing exposure, engendering overconfidence, or somehow rewarding risky behavior. Vernick points to another example: "Because high school driver education programs contribute to earlier licensure for young drivers, these programs may actually increase motor vehicle fatality rates for young persons."

Other examples include courses that teach skid control, off-road recovery, and other emergency maneuvers. When these were taught to young men, the outcome was adverse. "Males who received training had higher crash rates than those who did not take the training. Authors of the relevant studies have suggested that males trained in these skills become overconfident in their ability and now take unnecessary risks," Mayhew says.

Such unexpected and unintended outcomes underscore the importance of conducting scientific evaluations of all intervention programs.

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