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Center for Transportation Studies
Rob Foss and Max Donath

Rob Foss and ITS Institute director Max Donath.

"Addressing the Driver's Role in Motor Vehicle Crashes: Past Failures, Future Successes"

Presentation by Rob Foss, Senior Research Scientist and Manager of Alcohol Studies, Highway Safety Research Center, University of North Carolina

September 26, 2006

Knowledge from the domain of social policy research can significantly enhance efforts to reduce motor vehicle crashes, specifically in the area of changing driver behavior, said Rob Foss of the University of North Carolina's Highway Safety Research Center. In reference to the title of his seminar presentation, Foss pointed out that his work focuses on driver behavior modification using the tools of social policy research, rather than on human factors or engineering.

Historically, Foss said, the success of efforts to change driver behavior have lagged behind improvements in vehicle safety and traffic system design. "We've made better vehicles and better roads, but we haven't made better drivers," he said.

Social policy research has developed a large body of knowledge about the factors influencing human behavior, Foss explained, but this knowledge is often ignored by policy makers and engineers who are more familiar with approaches based on human factors, engineering, and communication theory. While these approaches are valuable in many contexts, they may not provide the best tools for understanding the causes of risky behaviors such as speeding or driving after drinking. Consequently, interventions based solely on these approaches may not be as successful as expected.

When developing programs intended to influence driver behaviors, Foss said, it is important to avoid falling into the trap of "common sense" reasoning. "Common sense is often wrong--and always inadequate" to the task of understanding and influencing human behavior, he said.

Foss identified several common-sense assumptions, frequently made by policy makers, such as:

  • Any behavior problem can be solved by better education
  • Punishment is an effective way to change behavior
  • People's behaviors are determined directly by their attitudes

Social policy research has shown that these axioms, although they may seem true at first glance, are in fact erroneous.

Foss went on to identify two major characteristics of a successful policy intervention. The first is conceptual soundness: the intervention must be based on an accurate understanding of the problem to be solved. The second is implementation fidelity: it must put its principles into action faithfully and without compromise.

Efforts to change driver behavior, Foss continued, are more likely to be successful if they focus on changing the environment (physical or regulatory) rather than on changing the way people think. He pointed to successful programs in the areas of graduated driver licensing for new drivers and alcohol enforcement.

Laws themselves, Foss said, are not very effective in changing behavior. As an example, he pointed to a North Carolina program to improve enforcement of anti-drunk driving laws. While the enforcement effort netted many drunk drivers, it failed to reduce the overall rate of drunk driving because many state residents didn't know about it or didn't take it seriously as a risk. In contrast, he said, a combination of enforcement and effective publicity to let people know that they are likely to be caught can be effective in reducing drunk driving, as shown by a contemporary Tennessee program that achieved its goal of reducing drunk driving with a smaller budget but better planning and execution.