For the first 50 years of the motor vehicle, safety efforts boiled down to "Please Drive Carefully." The idea was to educate people about the wisdom of safe driving practices and then assume they would change their behavior, based on the new information.
Such programs aimed at improving drivers rarely have been subjected to scientific evaluation. When they have, the almost inevitable finding is that education alone doesn't work. This shouldn't be surprising. After all, drivers believe the problem on the road is some other motorist, not themselves, so they don't think they need to heed the education.
To further understand why education alone doesn't work, it's important to distinguish between drivers' skills and their behavior behind the wheel. Drivers don't change their attitudes and behavior after receiving information about the risk of a crash and the importance of safe driving practices —and it's attitudes and behavior, not deficient skills, that lead to most crashes.
"This doesn't mean there's no place for educating drivers," Williams explains. "Education helps people understand why traffic laws and enforcement are needed. But by itself it doesn't accomplish anything, and spending time and money on it wastes resources that could be used for more effective programs."
For 30 years or so, highway safety practitioners have been advocating a balance of programs based on science to reduce crash deaths and injuries. Still, belief in education alone persists. Part of its appeal may be that some educational programs are so easy to implement. They may involve simply putting up signs or distributing trinkets reminding people to drive safely or buckle up (see Status Report special issue: what works and what doesn't to improve highway safety, May 19, 2001).
Programs that succeed in getting drivers to change their behavior involve more than trinkets and slogans. They involve enacting good traffic safety laws, enforcing them, and educating drivers about the consequences of noncompliance. Implementing such programs is the aspect of U.S. highway safety efforts that has fallen short compared with other countries.