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Risk mentality: why drivers take the risk they do

By: Lawrence P. Lonero

Date: 2000-04-02

A paper presented at the World Traffic Safety Symposium, New York Auto Show, April, 1998

Larry Lonero is with Northport Associates, a consulting company based in Ontario, Canada.

We have been told forever that drivers' risky actions cause almost all highway crashes and the resulting tragic casualties. The generally accepted number is 85%, based on multi-disciplinary "accident" investigation studies. The exact proportion is not really important. We know it is big, and we know it is not easy to fix. There are some fundamental human characteristics that make us less capable and less cautious as drivers than we would like. I'm going to summarize what we know about why drivers usually discount risks and a little about what we can do about it. To understand the problem and start thinking about more effective fixes we have to look closely at the wacky psychology of risk and the even wackier politics.

My company recently had an unusual opportunity to take a comprehensive look at the ways of influencing the behavior of road users, particularly drivers. We put together a multi-disciplinary team and conducted a massive state of the art review. The intent was to advance practical understanding of what works and what does not work in influencing road user behavior, and why. By no means do we, or anyone else, know everything about this horrendously complex field, but the review does give us a broad view of what's known. I cannot here cover the full detail of what turned out to be hundreds of pages of report, but I can hope to give some flavor of what we found and where I think it points. First, a little history.

Active vs. passive safety: fix the wheel or the nut holding it?

In road safety we have passive safety strategies, which try to engineer safer environments, and active or behavioral strategies, which try to influence people to act more safely. A popular old saying went something like, "The only thing wrong with cars is the nut holding the steering wheel." This view changed in the 1960s (at least inside the Washington Beltway), and passive approaches became dominant, partly because of the poor understanding of driver behavior and the weak behavior-change methods used in the past. In his influential 1965 book, Ralph Nader wrote: "...our society knows a great deal more about building safer machines than it does about getting people to behave safely in an almost infinite variety of driving situations that are overburdening the drivers' perceptual and motor capacities...Vehicle deficiencies are more important to correct than human inadequacies simply because they are easier to analyze and remedy." And he goes on to get pretty explicit, " ... whether motorists are momentarily careless or intoxicated, or are driving normally when they are struck by another vehicle is entirely irrelevant to the responsibility of the automobile makers to build safer cars." Nader could have added highway authorities and roads as well, but maybe taking on these government bureaucracies was too much even for him.

The early days of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Highway Safety Act and the resulting emphasis on crash protection standards were a result of looking at the problem this way. It was probably not even true that we knew better how to make cars safer at that time. Many motor vehicle safety standards were "technology forcing" standards, which required performance beyond what the industry knew how to design. It was politically acceptable to put this kind of pressure on safer vehicle design, because accountability was localized in a few privately owned manufacturers. Rarely would such pressure on safe behavior by drivers ever be acceptable, because responsibility for this is highly diffused over various government agencies.

Road safety was not unique in deciding that passive measures offered the best payoff. Public health had a similar history, of course, starting much earlier. As we entered the industrial age, passive public health measures such as public water treatment and sewage disposal had the greatest impacts on health. Environmental health is still an issue, but now we look more to individual choices and healthy lifestyle changes for major improvements in public health.

We have not reached the end of safety improvements to vehicles and roads-far from it. There are many opportunities for better occupant protection and crash avoidance, and whole new fields, like Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems, are going to open up further opportunities. Especially in some roadway areas such as signing, there is a long way to go before we can say it is even pretty good. Even in vehicle design, there are some sour notes in the generally happy tune. The last two big vehicle changes, airbags and ABS, have had major problems, and these problems are to some extent behavioral. We enjoy the benefits of safer vehicles and roads, but it is clear we really do have to get smarter about understanding and managing driver behavior to maintain real progress.

The psychology of risk-weird science

Fortunately, psychology and safety research can now provide useful understanding of drivers and point us to effective use of influence tools. But first, why is it important to understand how people behave on the road and why they behave they way they do? Well, it is terribly important, because our understanding of the driver's mind provides us with the assumptions that underlie the way we design safety programs and allocate resources.

If we are unclear or wrong about how drivers think and what their motives are, our attempts to educate or influence them will be ineffective. This is not only important to safety bureaucrats, but to everybody who has responsibility for influencing others to drive more safely, from the manager of a thousand truck drivers to the operator of a small sales or service fleet, and even to the parents of teenage drivers.

What we see when we look at driver behavior depends, of course, on where we are looking from. There are a lot of different approaches to understanding the driver, but I think they mostly boil down to two opposing approaches. Either we take risks because we don't realize we are taking them, or because we are willing to accept them.

The first is the "human factors" or "ergonomics" approach. Human factors psychologists and engineers see the driver as an information processor and performer of a set of skills. These nice folks say that us drivers are nice too, that we are well meaning and usually trying to do the right thing. It's just that sometimes the demands of the driving task exceed our capabilities-that is, they think we are good people but stupid drivers.

In human factors R&D, they study how a typical, "average" person can perform and, since we do not all have identical capacities and limitations, they look at the range of differences between individuals. There is a lot to be said for this approach. It's important to keep in mind that the human race did not grow up driving cars-until a couple of hundred years ago the fastest anybody ever went was swinging on a vine.

We humans have many remarkable abilities, but we also have some severe limitations in our ability to perceive all the risks involved in driving. The human factors people look at what can be done to vehicles and roadway environments to reduce the demands on our limited perceptual and mental capacities. As an example of a practical application of this approach-I do some human factors consulting for lawyers and insurance companies in crash litigation cases. I study questions of what the drivers were able to do in a crash situation. What could they see? How fast could they be expected to react? Did the drivers' failures result from some basic human limitation of perception or from a failure of judgment? This work is very interesting but very frustrating, because the legal system has trouble understanding the difference between the science of drivers' capacities/limitations and common sense ideas about how drivers operate in real life.

Putting aside the frustrations of trying to present drivers as nice people in an ugly world, lets look at the second approach to understanding the driver, where I now mostly work. This is the not-so-nice approach of the economist, the criminologist, the lawyer, the traffic cop, some psychologists, and crabby, pessimistic folk in general. As one researcher put it, this approach is "to view the driver as a bundle of motivations." These crabby, pessimistic point of view tends to say that we drivers, whatever our basic limitations, could all be safer if we just cared enough to try harder-that is, they think we're good enough drivers but stupid people.

The crabby-pessimistic motivation folks are obsessed with questionable values, decisions, and motives on the part of drivers. Their main excuse for this misanthropic view is that driving is a self-paced task. That is, most of the time as we drive, it is our own actions which determine the difficulty of the task and the risk that we experience. This means, of course, that our motivation is more important than our capacities and limitations in contributing to risk. What we are able to do as drivers and what we choose to do are often very different-for instance, every driver is capable of driving at the speed limit but many choose not to do it.

In recent years, the motivational camp has become even more slanderous in its slagging of the human character. Some think that drivers will start to take more risk to compensate for vehicle and roadway improvements made by the nice guys. This goes around under different aliases: risk compensation, danger adaptation, risk homeostasis, and even the vicious sounding "moral hazard". This depressing view of things seems to have taken hold in Canada and Europe.

The motivational approach isn't all bad news and crabbiness, however. There are some constructive and practical steps implied by the approach. An example in our own work is the design of safety incentive programs to motivate fleet drivers to try harder. Incentive programs are used widely in industrial safety and, when designed right, they can be very effective. So it does seem that people can be safer, in some circumstances, if they are motivated to be safer by some small reward.

Abilities vs. motives-which is it?

So who is right here, the cheery human factors guys or the depressing motivation guys? The truly sad and complicated truth is that they both are. On the road, some drivers who seem highly motivated to be safe, such as the elderly, crash a lot because of special limitations on their capacities. Some drivers with high skills and capacities, such as amateur racers, also have high crash rates on the roads. The highest risk drivers-young beginners-crash both because they have limited abilities to perceive hazards and judge risk, and especially because they are not very motivated to avoid risks. Indeed, they may be motivated to seek risks and the benefits that come from taking them. (See Michael Apter's book The Dangerous Edge: The Psychology of Excitement , for a convincing discussion of how fundamental risk taking is.) Average drivers are at moderate risk both because of modest abilities and modest motivation to avoid risk.
(Editor's note: The Dangerous Edge is out of print and may be unavailable)

Is risky driving normal?

Whatever perspective on the driver we choose, it is clear that the vast majority of deaths and injuries on the roads are caused by the actions of "normal" drivers, as opposed to those who can be identified as deviant, abnormal, or particularly "bad" drivers. Certainly there are all too many chronic bad risks, but they are only a small part of the total problem. This challenges our understanding and creates real difficulties for management of efforts to reduce the problem. Should we focus on the highest risk minority or the moderate risk majority? This question has major political implications that we'll get to in a minute.

Surprisingly little is known about the details of normal driver behaviors that lead to the vast majority of collisions. If we look at individual cases, we can see specific errors, but we can rarely see why this error, which is probably very common, perhaps even "normal", led to a crash this time and not the other gazillion times it was committed. This limits the current choice of priority behaviors targeted for change to obvious general categories of behavior-such as impaired driving, speeding, tailgating and the current big fads, aggressive driving and "road rage."

Routine collision reports are not specific or precise enough to be of much help. Better report forms and training of police crash investigators could help a lot. Special, in-depth collision studies have pointed strongly to failures in attentiveness and hazard detection as leading causes of crashes, but even these findings have limits. If a driver failed to perceive a hazard, was it because of some limit to perceptual skills or because attention was directed elsewhere? If the driver was not paying adequate attention, what was he/she doing? Did failure of attention occur from carelessness, or did the driving situation place too much demand on the drivers' attention switching capabilities? Could it be some of both?


Normal drivers are motivated to behave in ways that they think are useful to their best interests. That's pretty much what normal means. One of the most fundamental traits of normal people is adaptability. They respond to changes in the environment to achieve certain outcomes-what an economist or cognitive psychologist would call "expected utility". Normally, nobody wants to be injured, so a safe trip is an important priority. But (and this is a very important but) there are always other priorities to be traded off against safety.

Many other motives are considered in the decisions leading to drivers' behaviors, ranging from practical trip purposes to the sheer thrill of speed, and many motives in between. It is clear that we are willing to accept a certain amount of risk in return for the benefits of mobility. If we weren't, we would just stay home (although that has its own risks). Once we are on the road, we can choose between cautious behavior and risky behavior in most any situation. Each choice has certain benefits and costs.

Drivers' risk decisions result from the balance between the costs and benefits of choosing either a safer or less safe option. The Canadian risk psychologist Gerald Wilde uses the term "target risk" to indicate a preferred risk level that we try to maintain as conditions change. (See Wilde's book Target Risk for a full discussion.) Risk acceptance decisions are thought to be based on a decision matrix like the one below.

Matrix (to be supplied) A great many different motives could be shown in the matrix, and some motives may be relevant to some drivers and not others. For instance, thrill seeking or impressing friends are usually stronger motives for young drivers than for the elderly. Even for the same driver, motives may change from trip to trip. Saving time, for instance, is highly motivating when we are late for an important appointment.

Real risk and subjective risk

It is important to keep in mind that many of the costs and benefits that motivate our decisions are not certain, and some of them are much less certain than others. For instance, speeding is likely to get us to our appointment earlier, more likely than it is to get us a speeding ticket. What's more, we don't usually know what the real odds are. For getting tickets, this is probably good, because we generally think the odds are higher than they really are. We make our decisions based on what we think the odds are (subjective risk), and this is likely to be pretty loosely connected to the real odds, especially when these are very small. On any given trip, the odds of anything bad happening are low, even for inept and careless drivers.

Optimism bias and control illusion

As normal people, most drivers also have a tendency to excess optimism. In its extreme form we see this as the legendary "invulnerability" feelings of youth. But it is normal to feel that things are going to work out OK for us. "Optimism bias", as the psychologists call it, is probably wired into the normal human, and it helps us discount the risk of coming to harm. We learn a related mental aberration, called "control illusion", which means we think we have more control than we really do have. Every time we get away with a risky action, we learn that we can control things even when we're doing what we have been told is dangerous-for example, "speed kills", but we get away with speeding on a regular basis. Our roadway system is pretty forgiving, and it teaches us through our own experience that the chances of serious injury, for us, are pretty close to zero. We must be special. As drivers we almost all think we are better than average, and our feelings of being in control help us discount the real risks we face.

Our optimistic illusions have an interesting side effect that makes safety education tougher. Say we are shown lots of convincing, objective information about the size and horror of the road crash problem. "Yup," we say, "the country really has a big problem, I'm sure glad it doesn't apply to me." There is a strong tendency to depersonalize big societal problems like road safety because, well, "I'm special and I'm going to be OK." It's another way we discount the danger in the risks that we routinely take.

Motivation: up close and personal

To help us behave in ways that treat risks more realistically, we have to find some effective motivational handles. We have tried to break motivation down a bit to make sure we don't miss too many possibilities. Two fundamental kinds of motivation seem important, personal and social.

Personal motives are our individual drives and needs: that is, what we want to get for ourselves (or avoid) through our actions. These personal motives can originate internally or externally. Internal personal motivators include such things as personal values, personal mobility, need for self protection, emotional reactions, need for autonomy, fun and thrills, and so forth. Since these motives come from inside, there is not too much we can do to create or eliminate them. We can sometimes support the positive ones or at least help people to pay more attention to them. In this, as in so many things, we teach best by providing a good example.

External personal motivators are those imposed on us from outside. These include such things as feedback, approval, incentives, and disincentives. The last, in the form of threatened punishment, has traditionally been the main way to influence drivers' motives. This is not good, since punishment is a notoriously poor motivator, unless it is swift, reasonably severe, and very certain. Of these, certainty is the most important; you can increase the severity of a penalty with no effect if the chances of getting caught are low. As with any risk, people seem to multiply the severity of the consequences by the probability of receiving them and make their decision based on the size of the result. For example, if the fine for a speeding violation is $100 but the chances of receiving it is one in a thousand times that we speed, then we act as if the risk of penalty was pretty close to zero. External motivators can be very powerful (as in a gun to the head), but their effect on behavior is often temporary.

Social motives are those in which we consider needs, benefits, and costs beyond ourselves. Social motivators are what we want for our friends and family, our community or workplace, and the state or the nation. They can include feelings of responsibility for others, community values, leadership or role modeling. A successful practical application of these motives is "active caring," a program concept used in industrial safety by the Virginia Tech psychologist Scott Geller . It promotes an active concern for the safety of others, since Scott thinks we will likely never be very good at overcoming excess optimism about our own risks. For many, it may be easier to change our behavior to protect others than to protect ourselves.

The social and political mentality of risk

Choices about risk also occur at the community, state, and national level. As a society we decide how much loss we are willing to accept in exchange for how much freedom and mobility. The overall level of road crash risk that currently enjoyed (or suffered) is the balance of what is decided about all the factors that could help or hurt road safety. The behavior of corporate and governmental organizations are important parts of this balance. Overall risk is the net effect of a great many corporate, bureaucratic, and political decisions, and these decisions are based the benefits and costs perceived by organizations.

To change the level of road safety, we have to disturb the current balance. Even before we get started, natural, unplanned trends in society may disturb the balance for us. For instance, current demographic trends mean larger numbers of both elderly and young drivers are entering the driving population, and both groups crash a lot. Also, collision deaths, and maybe driving behavior, are influenced by the business cycle. Certainly, the numbers of fatal crashes go up and down very precisely with economic indicators. Our prolonged period of economic growth should also raise risk over the next few years. Boom times lead to optimism, perhaps on the road as well as at the brokerages. Maybe they also lead to impatience, since time is money, and it's even more money in good times. Some of the current problems with increased aggressive driving, if real, may be influenced by our current economic expansion.

A large number of factors influence what drivers choose to do, ranging from behavior genetics to visual perception to the economy. We can only do something about a small proportion of these. We can not, for instance, create a recession to reduce deaths on the roads.

Drivers are also citizens. Most of us are content with our own behavior, so it is difficult to impose influences that are perceived to be onerous for us normal drivers. We are all in favor of safety, but not if it is too inconvenient, especially since we don't think the overall risk really applies to us anyway. Punitive or inconvenient influences that are strong enough to produce behavioral change will be seen as onerous, unless they are directed to groups that are perceived to be deviant. While popular and expedient, the impact of addressing only deviant drivers is limited, even if it is effective, because of the small numbers involved. This may be the "Catch 22" of road safety management.

Legislation, enforcement, education, and reinforcement

So how do we go about disturbing normal drivers enough to change their behavior? Certainly there are lots of perspectives on behavior change in road safety. The different professional disciplines involved, different schools of thought, and different ideologies all shape diverse approaches to behavior change. Everyone seems to think they understand influencing drivers pretty well. I'm constantly being told by some well meaning soul, "If only they would (fill in the blank), drivers (that is, other drivers) will smarten up and the problem will be solved."

There are four main tools for influencing driver behavior: 1) Legislation, that is laws and rules; 2) Enforcement, that is supervision and surveillance; 3) Education, including training, advertising and promotion; and 4) Reinforcement, which is the short term we use for behavior analysis methods, such as incentives, feedback, etc. Much evidence suggests that these big influence tools are rarely used to the maximum of their capability, and most programs, sad to say, are probably ineffective. As safety professionals we maintain our pride and optimism mostly by neglecting to evaluate programs. Lets take a quick look at how these tools work and how we can make them work better.

Legislation codifies society's expectations and standards, and rules and regulations attempt to control most aspects of road user behavior. While pretty intrusive, highway law is accepted as being justified by the greater common good as part of the privilege of using the public roads. The legislative framework allocates responsibility for road transport regulation and road user behavior to different levels of government, and to various agencies within them. It tells us what to do and who should be accountable for ensuring that we do it. But how does it actually work?

Legislation has two possible ways of influencing our behavior. First is through "deterrence," in which behavior changes to avoid the threat of punishment. Deterrence is, of course, quite dependent on enforcement, which discounts its effect through low subjective risk of being caught.

The second way legislation influences behavior is through its educational or moral power. Legal theorists call this the "declarative" effect. This effect is dependent upon education, publicity, and communication. When well communicated, laws inform us about what our community values and expects of us, or would like to expect of us. Leonard Evans, a researcher at GM, put it well when he wrote, "Legislative interventions partly reflect social norms, and partially influence them; it is often unclear which is the cart and which is the horse".

Legislation by itself has limited effect on road users' behavior, probably less effect than most people think. Typically, new legislation has an initial impact, because people overestimate the deterrent threat. As publicity tapers off, the exaggerated deterrent threat usually wears off after a few months. This is repeated over and over again. There may, however, be subtle long-term or cumulative effects on social norms, at least for some types of legislation. It is conceivable that a lot of rules and publicity efforts, each of which is ineffective on its own, adds up to some mysterious effect on social norms. This may have happened with DWI.

Legislative interventions need more support and maintenance. The tools for support and maintenance can be found in enforcement, reinforcement, and education. Effective enforcement supervision is needed to create a credible deterrent and to encourage development of safe habits of compliance. Reinforcement techniques, such as prompts, feedback, and incentives can enhance motivation and encourage habit formation. Education is needed to promote knowledge, skills, and attitude changes, and to feed the development of internal and informal social controls. More comprehensive, coordinated support for legislative objectives, using a combination of influences, would be helpful in encouraging safer behavior.

Enforcement brings concrete reality to legislation. It threatens penalties, and with some probability, delivers them. The threat of penalties creates two kinds of deterrence. First is "specific deterrence", changing the later behavior of individuals who receive a penalty. Second is "general deterrence". The threat of penalties is known in advance, so it presents a disincentive for actions that have not yet happened. A disincentive has its effects before the punishment is delivered, so enforcement can have a "general deterrent" effect, influencing the behavior of those who have not yet received any sanction.

Enforcement presence has dramatic short-range effects. Even an empty threat can have a big effect, for a while. The day that photo radar signs went up on Ontario freeways, everybody was driving at the speed limit, even though the program had not started yet. It was spooky, but it only lasted for a day or two. Unfortunately, there is rarely enough surveillance for this effect to make a significant contribution to road safety on its own. The "halo effects" of visible surveillance can extend the perceived threat, and this may contribute to general deterrence. Specific deterrence is restricted by the weakness of punishment as a behavioral influence and by the low chances of repeat violators being detected.

Competing priorities for police resources may lock routine surveillance into a game-theory equilibrium with offenders: more enforcement leads to less violations, which leads to less enforcement, and so on. Selective Traffic Enforcement Programs (STEPs) combine enforcement blitzes with education and publicity, and they can break out of the game, at least in the short term. Automated surveillance show promise for longer-term impacts. Ontario's photo radar program was poorly designed and failed, both for political reasons. Which just goes to show that it is hard to do anything that is really effective if it inconveniences normal drivers. The very effectiveness of automated enforcement could also lead to reductions in other types of surveillance unless the incentives for police agencies are altered with respect to traffic enforcement.

Reinforcement is used here as an umbrella term to subsume incentive/reward and other aspects of behavior-analysis technology. These behavioral techniques are powerful when used properly. Behavior change is more likely when directly encouraged by means of reinforcement than more indirectly through attempts to change knowledge and attitudes. Reinforcement directly attacks the specific "causes" of behavior.

The best programs make effective use of the basic behavioral influences: rewards and punishments, incentives and disincentives, cues and prompts, commitment and participation, and feedback. This is the meat and potatoes of behavioral psychology. Psychologists know that positive, rewarding outcomes, encourage desirable behaviors more reliably than negative, punitive outcomes discourage undesirable behaviors.

Better understanding and application of environmental cues and prompts holds promise as useful influences. Incentives are shown to be powerful influences in the short term and can be used to enhance self-control of behavior for the long term. Simple feedback, even without rewards, is shown to have a substantial impact on some behaviors, such as belt use. I see transfer and refinement of behavioral technologies to routine operations as the main challenge of road safety management for the foreseeable future.

Education encompasses a large and diverse set of techniques aimed at influencing driver behavior. A lot of faith has been placed in safety education programs. However, the traditional approach, which was simply to place information before a passive audience, has proven to be ineffective in changing behavior.

Classroom education applies to new and elderly drivers, violators, and some "regular" drivers, especially if they are part of a corporate fleet. Properly designed training provides practice and feedback, so behavior-change potential is strong. However, sound evaluations and demonstrated effectiveness in changing behavior are relatively rare. Nevertheless, intensive, face-to-face, interactive training techniques show good potential, even with adults.

Public education and advertising promotions are widespread. They are limited in the behaviors they can address and the amount of information they can deliver. They lack the critical features of practice, two-way interaction, and feedback, so their behavior-change potential is limited. As traditionally practised, they attempt to change attitudes, and they have little demonstrable effect on their own. However, if properly designed and targeted they have a strong role to play in broader programs. Public relations and news coverage can have very wide, if somewhat shallow, impact, and they have potential for influence beyond that now realized. News coverage in particular is a weak link in the road safety chain.

Evaluation is especially important in education, where programs seem so obviously desirable, effective, and non-threatening. Education is nice; it doesn't bother anybody. The possibility of negative effects also makes evaluation critical for education programs. As in other potentially-effective behavioral technologies, there is no guarantee of either effectiveness or harmlessness, and the effects must be carefully tracked to avoid wasting resources or causing harm. Some approaches to driver training can make more crashes. Existing theory and data can be used to design useful programs of all types of safety education. All types can achieve useful (if limited) objectives, if they are designed, implemented, evaluated, and refined according to best practice and behavioral principals.

Is a little safety always a good thing?

Certainly, we should not give up on influencing driver behavior, just because it is tough, but it must be done better. We should not succumb to "optimism bias" in program planning, but be realistic about what it really takes. If we are not ready to give what it takes, we should say so and back off. Pretending to influence driver safety is tempting for PR and political reasons. We are always saying, "All this suffering is intolerable, something has to be done!" We should change this to "something effective has to be done".

Keep in mind that ineffective safety measures make the world safer for bureaucracy, but they are actually harmful for the rest of us. They trick us into thinking that something useful is being done, preventing other actions which could actually be effective. We have limited mental and financial resources. Ineffective programs use up those resources just as fast as good programs, without producing any offsetting savings from loss reduction. So, what would it take to get more effective influence programs?

Organizational behavior change

The big problem is not that we don't know how to influence and change behavior to be safer-we do. We can do it in special pilot projects quite nicely. The problem is that we don't know how to change the behavior of the organizations that could deliver enough influence to make a difference . The critical issues for behavioral safety programs are coordination, evaluation, and accountability. Coordination is critical because the multicausal nature of driver behavior requires multifaceted programs for effective change. Coordination of programs, however, runs against organizational boundaries and bureaucratic interests. This expands behavior change to include the tougher problems of organizational behavior change. Safety management may have to find out what various stakeholder organizations need to support their own specific objectives and help provide it as exchange for the organizations' support of safety objectives. Organizations respond to incentives and disincentives as reliably as do individuals.

Evaluation is critical for all behavioral programs. No behavioral program, however carefully planned, can be assumed to work without hard data. The influence process is too complex to rely on simple program standards or cookbook solutions. If there is to be progress in driver safety management, it will be knowledge driven. The knowledge for continued refinement of behavioral methods will only become available through objective evaluation. All behavior change methods should be seen as experimental.

Accountability for safety outcomes is critical because organizations, like individuals, will only change when they are motivated to do so. The "payoffs" received by organizations with responsibility for driver safety are rarely connected to success in reducing the severity of the problem. Transfer of behavioral technology, coordination of multifaceted programs, and the evaluation and refinement of interventions are unlikely under existing organizational structures. Techniques of organizational behavior change are needed to support individual behavior change as part of effective driver safety management.

Who's to blame?

It's easy to point accusing fingers, but there is plenty of blame to go around. Governments are congenitally weak when it comes to leaning on the average driver/voter. They will make a lot of noise beating on industry, drunks, and road-rage nut cases, but they will go pretty easy on you and me. Responsibility for safety is neatly spread around different agencies and levels of government, so there is little meaningful coordination or accountability. Do bureaucrats ever get fired or promoted based on some real measure of effectiveness? Not very often. Drug problems get a war and a czar to run it. Driver behavior problems get wishful thinking and buck passing.

If I could order one thing to be done for road safety, it would be to smarten up the news media. They are seriously ignorant of technical aspects of driver safety and incompetently uncritical of poor information and lame programs. Of course, we the customers must share the rap with the media, because we buy weak reporting and safety window dressing. Maybe the media are just giving us what we want; to be reassured that something is being done and not to be bothered too much. After all, we're optimistic that it's not going to happen to us, because we are in control.

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