Driving Safety Research Paper

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This research-paper describes behavioral targets and strategies to improve driving safety. Speeding, alcohol-impaired driving, and safety belt use behaviors are discussed, as are unsafe driving behaviors among young (age 14–18 years) and older drivers (age 70+ years). For each behavior or set of behaviors, those factors that support safe driving or reduce poor driving and those that undermine safe behaviors or support unsafe driving behaviors are discussed.


  1. Driving Safety as a Behavioral Target
  2. Speeding
  3. Alcohol-Impaired Driving
  4. Safety Belt Nonuse
  5. Driving Safety among Older Drivers
  6. Driving Safety among Younger Drivers
  7. Conclusion

1. Driving Safety As A Behavioral Target

Driving safety is measured objectively by the presence or absence of motor vehicle crashes and/or the severity of motor vehicle crash outcomes. Crash severity is typically measured in terms of the damage sustained by the vehicle involved in the crash and the severity of the injuries sustained by the people involved in the crash. Driving safety is also assessed by the presence or absence of precursor behaviors demonstrated to be related to crash involvement and/or severity.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2001 there were 6,323,000 traffic crashes in the United States resulting in nearly 40,000 deaths and an additional 2,003,000 injuries. Annually, there are approximately 20 persons killed and an additional 1585 persons injured for every 100,000 licensed drivers. The NHTSA estimates that the total economic cost of traffic crashes in 2000 was $230.6 billion.

Although improvements in vehicle and road design have contributed much to improving driving safety, perhaps the most significant advances in driving safety in the past 15 years are behavior change programs designed to reduce the likelihood of drivers engaging in unsafe behaviors and programs designed to increase the likelihood of safe driving behaviors. Specifically, most efforts in behavior change to improve driving safety have focused on five target areas: speeding, alcohol-impaired driving, safety belt use, and driving behaviors of older drivers (age 70+ years) and young drivers (age 14–18 years).

2. Speeding

The NHTSA estimates that speeding (traveling in excess of the posted limit or traveling too fast for conditions) is a contributing factor in 30% of fatal crashes, resulting in approximately 12,000 lives lost in speeding-related crashes per year. Speeding reduces a driver’s ability to steer around curves or objects in the roadway, extends the distance that is needed to stop a vehicle, and increases the distance a vehicle travels as a driver reacts to a situation. Moreover, the dynamic forces generated in a crash increase exponentially with the speed of the vehicle.

Speeding behaviors are motivated and reinforced by a wide array of conditions. Speeding behaviors can result from consciously accepting risks inherent in the behavior or unconsciously by misinterpreting speed cues and subsequent risks. Drivers often speed to achieve their goal of reaching a given location at a given time. Some speed because they are not attending to available speed cues. A speedometer serves as an objective and reliable cue of vehicle speed. However, subjective cues in the driving environment (e.g., the rate at which trees on the roadside pass by as one is driving) may or may not be perceived by a driver. Even if perceived, a driver may not understand the meaning of these objective and subjective speed cues, the risks associated with the cues, and what the safe driving speed may be for a given situation. Variations in risk perceptions and acceptance among drivers compound these relationships.

Expectancies play a significant role in a person’s perception and acceptance of speed. For example, drivers turning into a traffic stream on a road with a 30 mph limit would not generally expect to have a vehicle approaching at 100 mph. A misperception of closing speed in this case could easily cause a traffic crash when the turning vehicle crosses into the path of the oncoming car that should have been farther away when the turn began. Another expectancy that many drivers have is that any given driver will get to his or her destination much sooner by passing traffic traveling slowly in a cue, like one would find when two lanes of a highway are merged into one because of road construction. Although there can be a measurable time savings from speeding, the gains are minimal. A vehicle traveling in an open lane at 50 mph passing a 3-mile-long line of traffic traveling at 10 mph will gain less than 2.5 min (and no doubt anger a number of people). In fact, the faster car has to pass approximately 700 vehicles to save the 2.5 min. Passing slower vehicles may create a perception of getting to the destination faster than is warranted by objective information.

The primary means applied to limit speeding behavior has been traffic law enforcement. The theoretical roots for this approach are found in learning theory. Enforcement strategies to control speeding behaviors target change in a driver’s perception of the likelihood of arrest, prosecution, conviction, and the severity of the subsequent sanction. That is, the programs change the perceived reinforcing and punitive qualities of the behavioral consequences. These perceptions serve as antecedent conditions signaling a heightened probability of negative consequences resulting from speeding. That is, speed can be regulated by decreasing the perceived utility/reinforcing properties of speeding. For example, perhaps drivers would perceive fewer benefits associated with driving on an adjoining lane of slowly moving traffic if they were made aware of the small gain made. On the other hand, if drivers perceive the environment as being too dangerous to speed, they will try to avoid the negative consequences by traveling at safe, legal speeds.

When the level of enforcement activity and its concomitant publicity decrease, changes in drivers’ perceptions of the risks and rewards of speeding will result in a return to the speed behaviors that were reinforced (or at least not punished) prior to the special enforcement program. These changes may occur quickly, as is the case among drivers using two-way radios to alert other drivers to the threat of enforcement. These informed drivers will slow while in the enforcement zone and resume speed once the threat has passed. These changes may also occur slowly, as is the case when enforcement patrols target an area using an intermittent enforcement schedule.

3. Alcohol-Impaired Driving

According to the NHTSA, 41% of persons killed in traffic crashes in the United States in 2001 were killed in crashes involving alcohol. That is, 17,448 persons were killed in alcohol-involved crashes in 2001. This seemingly dangerous activity is motivated by the desire to travel from point A to point B and is in part controlled by the extent to which drivers perceive risk in the behavior or reward in alternate behaviors. Behavior change programs to reduce the likelihood of alcohol impaired driving have taken the forms of reducing the response cost for alternate behaviors, programs to reduce the social acceptability of drinking and driving, interventions to reduce alcohol dependency, and enforcement campaigns to increase the perceived threat of drinking and driving behavior.

Some of the most innovative and successful programs to reduce alcohol-impaired driving have been those that reduce the response cost and even reward alternate behaviors incompatible with alcohol-impaired driving. Incentives in the form of free food and nonalcoholic beverages for persons who serve as the designated driver for a group have proven to be successful. An interesting program that prevents a person from driving while impaired is the ‘‘tipsy taxi’’ program. In this program, a patron who has had too much to drink is given a ride home by a volunteer. The patron or a friend then picks up the car from where it was parked at a later time.

The primary challenge to these programs is that the response cost for the desired behaviors can be perceived to be quite high. A designated driver may resent not being able to drink or become angry at boisterous drinking friends. The designated driver may feel uncomfortable to the extent that he or she can be identified and treated poorly by others in an establishment because he or she is the designated driver. In addition to the embarrassment of having to have someone else drive one home, the tipsy taxi has a significant response cost obstacle to overcome: People do not like to leave their cars on the street or in a parking lot near a bar.

Perhaps the most common programs to reduce impaired driving are those intended to persuade people that alcohol-impaired driving is an unacceptable behavior. The foci of these persuasion programs are attitudes, perceptions, and social norms associated with drinking and driving. These programs use mass media distribution of materials to educate and persuade readers to adopt the desired set of values and to engage in the desired behaviors. Although these types of information and persuasion strategies are an effective, almost necessary, adjunct to other types of programs, persuasion programs are not in themselves an effective means to change driving behavior.

As is the case for speeding behaviors, policies, laws, and their enforcement are significant components of alcohol-impaired driving reduction programs. Strengthening laws and increasing sanctions may increase their deterrent value in two ways. First, a law may serve to discourage a group of persons from engaging in the illegal act (general deterrence). Second, a law may serve to affect the behavior specifically of persons who have had a previous experience with violating the law (specific deterrence). For example, a new law that affects only repeat offenders may have a general effect (a reduction in drinking and driving among persons without a conviction) in addition to its desired effect on the target group of repeat offenders (specific deterrence). Behavior change programs targeting a reduction in alcohol-impaired driving also include interventions designed to reduce alcohol dependency. The most significant problem faced by treatment-based programs to reduce alcohol-impaired driving is the fact that often participants are ordered by the court to attend the treatment sessions that the court prescribes. The result is a client who has little motivation to participate actively in the change program imposed by the court and is being asked to make a major life change using a strategy that may well be inappropriate for that client.

4. Safety Belt Nonuse

When used, lap/shoulder belts reduce the chance of death or serious injury from a traffic crash by 45–60%. The NHTSA estimates that in 2001, use of safety belts prevented more than 12,000 fatalities that would have otherwise been caused by traffic crashes. Despite the demonstrated effectiveness of safety belts for preventing death and reducing injury, a substantial proportion of people do not use safety belts. Although NHTSA observation studies have shown that safety belt use has increased considerably from its 1994 level of 58% to its 2002 level of 75%, one out of four vehicle passengers still travel without this proven lifesaving device.

Programs to promote safety belt use have focused primarily on managing short-term consequences of safety belt use. The most significant consequence, loss of life, is an extremely rare event when considered on a trip-by-trip basis. Because of its infrequency, this consequence does little to promote belt use. In fact, prior to the implementation of laws mandating safety belt use, the national rate of belt use was approximately 14%. This rate shows that other, short-term consequences are necessary to increase belt use. Perhaps the most underused programs for promoting safety belt use are incentive programs in which a person or group of persons are rewarded for belt use.

Incentive programs have proven to be effective in achieving belt use in the 90–100% range at industrial sites and within communities. At the heart of the programs is the delivery of rewards for belt use rather than punishments for belt nonuse. Some jurisdictions have used police patrols to pull vehicles out of the stream of traffic to reward drivers, similar to the manner in which drivers are given tickets. These programs often create resentment toward police because the circumstances surrounding the delivery of the reward are perceived to be more punitive than the value of the reward. Strategies in which the delivery of rewards is concurrent with another activity in which belt use can be assessed easily by observation (e.g., fast-food drivethroughs) are highly successful.

The regularity and generalization of belt use can be accomplished with contingency management. Delaying the reward for belt use until multiple examples of the behavior are observed or using an intermittent reinforcement schedule can serve to extend the effects of the program past the time the program has ended. An example of delayed reward is a program in which persons who are observed wearing their belts receive a single bingo letter each time they order from the drive-through. The completed card may be redeemed for a product from the participating store. An intermittent schedule is achieved when belt users select a card randomly from a set of cards in which there are winning and losing cards.

Using a mixed cognitive and behavioral approach provides another strategy for promoting belt use. In this type of program, persons visiting participating stores may be given an opportunity to complete a form that pledges them to use their safety belt on every trip they take. The form is divided to create a raffle ticket that is entered in a weekly drawing for nominal prizes and a rear-mirror tag displaying their commitment to belt use. The mirror tag serves two purposes. First, it serves as a cue to the driver to put on the safety belt. Second, volunteers observe belt use on streets in the area and record the plate number of every person with a mirror tag who is using a belt. This is done throughout the program period, after which a small number of desirable prizes are awarded to persons with the highest number of observed belt use. This mixed strategy is most effective at sites where the number of observations that can be made of all participants is approximately the same (e.g., parking lots).

The effectiveness of incentive programs is often improved by using group contingencies. When group contingencies are applied, the reward is earned only when each member of the group achieves the target level of the desired behavior. In this type of program, motivation is not derived from desire to obtain the reward alone. There are additional motivations resulting from the group asserting its influence on a person who may be preventing the group from receiving its reward.

There are also a variety of belt promotion strategies that employ punishment or the threat thereof to achieve program goals. Changes in enforcement policy mandated by laws requiring belt use have resulted in the most dramatic increases in belt use among the general population. Many, if not most, who begin to use their belt after this type of law change do so because they obey laws generally. Others respond to the fact that being pulled over is unpleasant and buckle up to avoid the stress of getting a ticket. The group of nonusers consists of persons who believe it is a personal decision; those who derive satisfaction merely from ‘‘tweaking the system’’; and those who, for personal reason (e.g., fear of entrapment and discomfort), choose not to use belts.

Efforts to increase belt use through the exclusive use of mass media strategies have proven to be universally ineffective. These programs are based on increasing knowledge and shaping attitudes conducive to belt use. Although ineffective when used in isolation, media strategies can be highly effective and essential components to promoting an incentive or disincentive-based safety belt promotion program.

5. Driving Safety Among Older Drivers

Achieving and maintaining safe driving behaviors among older drivers is going to be a growing challenge in the future. The NHTSA reports that in the United States there were 18.9 million licensed drivers age 70 or older in 2000, a 36% percent increase since 1990. During the same time period, the general population of older persons increased 6%, whereas the number of older drivers involved in fatal crashes increased at three times this rate (18%).

The basic motivations for driving at age 70 do not differ from those of younger drivers. One drives to get from one point to another. However, driving allows older persons the mobility required to maintain their physical and mental health. Without independent transportation, older persons may feel isolated and depressed because they cannot get together with family or friends without help; their access to medical treatment and fresh foods is reduced, further increasing their risk of an early death; and often they lose feelings of maturity and value as their driving abilities restrict their driving. The privilege to drive is often an important rite of passage from youth to adulthood in the United States. In order to avoid these negative consequences, many older persons drive in situations they have difficulty managing and may not freely admit to family members or others that they have difficulty driving in these situations.

Changes in vision, reduced range of motion, and slowed reflex and reaction times are among the effects age has on the body. Cognitively, there is a reduction in attention resources required for effective perception and decision making. Moreover, as people age, the ability to divide attention between several tasks and to identify and ignore irrelevant information decreases. As drivers age, they tend to perceive a given situation as being more threatening and their ability to respond lower than is actually the case. Older persons often take a variety of medications that may affect their ability to perceive or act in a manner consistent with safe driving. These changes affect the number, cause, and severity of crashes experienced by older drivers.

Compared to younger drivers, older drivers have a lower rate of alcohol involvement in fatal crashes but are increasingly under the influence of multiple prescription drugs that may affect driving in ways that have not yet been determined. Older drivers have a crash profile similar to that of younger drivers, but the causes of these profiles are different. As drivers age, their perceptions and assessment of risk are greater than they are in reality, and their perceived skill at meeting these challenges is lower than it is objectively. Comparing crash configurations for older and younger drivers, the NHTSA has shown that vehicles with drivers age 70 or older are three times more likely to be the vehicles struck in fatal collisions and six times more likely to crash while turning left than is the case for younger drivers.

Worsening vision and flexibility caused by aging may make assessments of an oncoming vehicle’s approach speed more difficult, thus requiring more time to scan the environment. This reduces the time available for decision making. Also, age-related deficits in decision-making processes may result in drivers making decisions too slowly to maneuver to avoid a collision. Finally, once the decision is made cognitively, the ability of older persons to act on that decision behaviorally is also impaired by age.

The gradual degradation of abilities necessary for safe driving creates a significant challenge. Some programs have attempted to address problems associated with age by using training sessions to increase skeletal flexibility and mental dexterity. Although these program have had limited success, it may be useful to consider a licensing system that allows drivers to exit the driving population gracefully and in a manner consistent with their condition. However, one must keep in mind that alternatives to driving oneself from point A to point B may be extremely limited. This is especially true outside large metropolitan areas. Because there are few opportunities for traveling locally for day-to-day necessities, states are reluctant to modify licensing laws that may further restrict an elderly person’s ability to be independently mobile and drive.

6. Driving Safety Among Younger Drivers

According to the NHTSA, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for persons age 15–20 in the United States. In 2001, 3608 drivers in this age group were killed in fatal crashes and traffic crashes injured an additional 337,000. More disturbing is the fact that although drivers age 15–20 constitute only 7% of the driving population, they are involved in 14% of all fatal crashes and approximately 20% of all reported crashes. Research has shown that teens are three or four times more likely to be involved in a crash during their first 2 or 3 years of driving compared to the general driving population.

For drivers age 15–20 involved in traffic crashes, police recorded the cause of the crash to be driver error or other factors related to the driver’s behavior in 75% of cases. Compared to drivers older than age 20, young drivers are more likely to exceed posted speed limits, drive too fast for conditions, follow too closely, cross traffic lanes, pass other vehicles, and approach signals at higher speeds. Young drivers are also less likely to use their safety belts and are affected by lower levels of alcohol than are older drivers. One of the central causes of these problems is the fact that younger drivers perceive a given situation to be less risky and their ability to handle a given situation to be greater than is actually the case.

Until recently, driver education classes were the primary means by which young drivers were trained to drive. These programs are excellent at teaching basic skills, such as accelerating, stopping, and steering, but do little to improve the necessary perceptual and decision-making skills required for safe driving. Research has shown that driver education may at best result in a small and short-lived improvement in driving safety but appears to have no effect on crash involvement in the long term. Recently, states have begun to implement a driver licensing protocol called graduated licensing.

Young drivers are involved in a higher rate of crashes because of their lack of experience driving and their heightened levels of risk taking. Graduated licensing is a licensing procedure by which young drivers are given driving privileges incrementally based on the successful completion of each licensing phase. This allows young drivers to experience more complex driving situations gradually, reducing the chance that drivers will encounter situations beyond their skill levels. Because graduated licensing practices restrict young people from driving at hazardous times, there is an additional safety benefit associated with reduced exposure.

Differences in laws from state to state make it difficult to specify each stage of graduated licensing, but the process is generally the same for all states. The process generally starts with a highly restricted learner permit that permits driving only in daylight with an adult in the car. In the second stage, drivers earn an intermediate license that limits driving without a guardian to daylight hours and still requires supervision at night. The final stage is full licensure, which occurs when a person is age 17 or older, has completed at least 6 months of the intermediate license condition, and has remained violation and crash free for the prior 3 months. Research has shown that the implementation of a graduated licensing system results in approximately 25% fewer crashes involving young drivers compared to the number of crashes before the institution of a graduated license system.

7. Conclusion

Safe driving requires that appropriate behaviors take place in the correct manner at the correct time. Risky driving behaviors, such as speeding, alcohol-impaired driving, and safety belt nonuse, have been proven to be best controlled by the application of learning theory models. The most successful intervention models have been those that managed relationships between the behavioral antecedents, the desired/undesired behavior, and the consequences associated with the behavior. By restricting driving to relatively safe conditions and extending driving experience over a long period of time prior to full licensure, the crash risk of young, novice drivers can be reduced significantly.


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