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Status Report, Vol. 36, No. 5 | SPECIAL ISSUE: WHAT WORKS AND WHAT DOESN'T | May 19, 2001 Subscribe

Education alone is ineffective at best and can even increase risk

Many well-intentioned safety advocates cling to the belief that the answer to unsafe driving is safe driving courses and public service announcements bolstered by billboards, bumper stickers, and assorted trinkets.

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 Institute 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 (see "Driver education does not equal safe drivers," Jan. 11, 1997). According to Jon S. Vernick of Johns Hopkins, 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.

There's no reason to prefer highway safety efforts aimed at drivers over those aimed at vehicles or roads. Preference should go to programs shown to be effective.

Many well-intentioned safety advocates cling to the belief that the answer to unsafe driving is safe driving courses and public service announcements bolstered by billboards, bumper stickers, and assorted trinkets.

Education can be risky

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. Then the ones that either don't work or exacerbate the problem can be changed or abandoned. "This hasn't happened sufficiently," Williams says.

Knowledge alone isn't enough

"The belief that increasing motorists' or other road users' knowledge will change their actions reflects a naive view of human behavior," Williams adds. "At one level all drivers know, for example, that it's wrong to ignore stop signs and run red lights. Yet these obviously unsafe behaviors occur routinely. They're leading causes of crashes. Another example is that by now all motorists know driving after consuming significant amounts of alcohol increases crash risk, but millions of trips are taken each year by seriously impaired drivers."

An analogy involves educating students about drug use. One of the most prominent efforts, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education Program (DARE), began in California in the early 1980s. Now DARE is in 80 percent of U.S. school districts plus many other countries. Yet numerous studies have found the DARE curriculum, which features police officers teaching in classrooms, ineffective. Richard Clayton, director of the Center for Prevention Research at the University of Kentucky, authored one of the studies. "When we have something as complex and as hidden as drug abuse among adolescents, our usual answer to it is more education ... . It makes us, as adults, feel good that they're getting this information, but we know information oftentimes doesn't carry much weight. We've got to step back and ask, 'Is education ever the best magic bullet?' I, for one, don't think it is."

Most messages go unheeded

A roadside sign put up by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration implores motorists to "Drive Nice." This is the agency's way of addressing aggressive driving, a widespread problem that warrants attention (see "Road rage," Dec. 5, 1998). But don't expect the sign to do any good. It's a prime example of wasting resources on an ineffective approach.

Ray Peck, former Chief of Research at the California Department of Motor Vehicles, is one who says he "never felt that mass communication methods are effective, such as advertisements that tell people to buckle up. These programs are flawed for a lot of reasons."

Signs may impart information, but the added knowledge doesn't necessarily result in safer driver behavior. Why not? The answer goes to the crux of the failure of education alone. When surveyed, most drivers rate their own skills above average. Some rate their skills about the same as the average, but virtually none say they believe they're below-average drivers. So most drivers don't believe they need to be educated. They do believe in education, but they believe it's for all the other "bad" drivers on the road, not themselves.

Even drivers whose skills actually are above average may not be safer. Research conducted in the early 1970s involved a group of highly skilled race drivers who had worse on-the-road crash records than a group of average motorists. The race car drivers' knowledge and skills obviously were greater than those of the average drivers, but this didn't translate into enhanced highway safety.

A related problem is that high-risk drivers — the ones who most need to change their behavior — are the most difficult group to influence. Safety belt use rates are lower among young drivers, speeders, and other risk-takers, for example, than among drivers in general.

Support for education continues apace

The failure of education alone to influence drivers hasn't kept it from being encouraged under U.S. law. The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century allows states to use some federal highway safety program funds to produce and place media messages. This law does require yearly assessments of program effectiveness but, as Williams points out, "television commercials in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s didn't help improve highway safety, and they won't help now unless they're coupled with meaningful enforcement of traffic safety laws. If they aren't, then the commercials and all the other educational efforts will be a waste of federal monies."

Education still is tried the world over. Dinesh Mohan, who is Henry Ford Professor for Biomechanics and Transportation Safety at the Indian Institute of Technology, says, "The education debate gets resurrected every day ... . A very large number of countries have safety messages on television, have put up billboards on thoroughfares, hold road safety weeks, distribute safety literature in schools, and have instituted safety committees and councils. This has been going on for two decades, but the carnage continues."

Exception that proves the rule: when education alone works

There are a few instances when education alone can be effective in changing people's behavior. Children's behavior generally is easier than adults' to change, and some child pedestrian programs have been successful (see Status Report special issue: pedestrian injuries, March 13, 1999).

Messages aimed at adults are more likely to be effective if the audience has something tangible at stake, like maintaining a job performance record. An alcohol education program at a U.S. Air Force base succeeded largely because psychiatric referral or discharge could be a consequence for getting in a crash involving alcohol use.

Education programs that are longer and more extensive are apt to work better than shorter or limited efforts. It's beneficial if the communicator has high credibility and if the desired behavior has to be performed only once — for example, if a doctor recommends installing a smoke detector— instead of repeatedly over time.

But even gains from long-term education may diminish. Long-running anti-smoking programs have contributed to overall reductions in tobacco use, for example, but in the early to mid-1990s there was a surprising upswing in teen smoking.

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