Strategies That Don’t Work

Many programs meant to increase young driver safety are based on common-sense approaches. However, these programs often fail to understand the complexity of human behavior. As a result, although they may seem appealing, these programs simply don’t produce their intended result. The following should be avoided, with time and effort spent on more promising approaches.

Brochures, PSAs, and Other Awareness-Raising Programs

Telling people about risks, or what they should do to reduce risks, is the most common approach to reducing teen crashes and injuries. However, this approach has never had any measurable effect, for at least three reasons.

1. ‘Awareness raising’ efforts usually tell people something they already know. Studies show teens are aware that speeding is dangerous, texting while driving is a bad idea, and they should wear a seatbelt at all times.

2. Knowledge alone rarely leads to a change in any behavior. Merely telling someone they should do something (such as don’t text and drive) almost never leads to the person doing it. Every behavior is influenced by dozens of things such as peer behaviors and expectations, a person’s lifestyle (being a hurry and needing to stay connected to others), and the media. All of those have a stronger effect than advice in a safety slogan, brochure, or video.

3. Unless the program is extremely well-funded, messages rarely reach people more than once or twice, and they usually reach only a small fraction of the population. To have any chance of changing behavior, messages must be received, understood, remembered. Unless they are part of an on-going, extremely costly effort, most messages will never achieve this minimal requirement.

Scare Tactics

A common approach of teen driver programs is to create fear or anxiety by showing what can happen as a result of unsafe driving behaviors. Examples include gory videos or crash reenactments in front a high school. Research shows that fear-appeals are ineffective, and in some cases may encourage greater unsafe behaviors. The reason for this “boomerang effect” is not clear, but it appears that some teens either deny the threat or feel their personal freedom is threatened, making the unsafe behavior even more attractive. Whatever the reason, programs based on scare tactics should be avoided.

Safe Driving Pledges

Safe driving pledges are widely used, especially at certain high-risk times of year (e.g., prom). However, there is no research that suggests safe driving pledges are effective. They reinforce the decisions of those who already plan to engage in safe behaviors, but they do not appear to influence the behaviors of those who are at higher risk.

Remedial Driving Classes

Young people who are caught speeding or violating other driving laws are often required to attend a traffic safety education program. Unfortunately, these programs are not effective at changing behavior. Studies show that teens who participate in remedial driving classes have the same rates of high-risk driving behaviors and traffic citations following the program. Often these programs use scare tactics, which do not work for reasons listed above. Others fail to engage teens by lecturing to them about the consequences of dangerous driving.

Stand-Alone Enforcement or Education

Enforcement by itself will only affect the small number of drivers who get caught. Moreover, education by itself rarely works for reasons described above under “Brochures, PSAs, and Other Awareness Raising Programs.” When combined, however, enforcement and education can be effective at changing behavior. An example is high-visibility sobriety checkpoints. When there is lots of publicity in a community about police conducting checkpoints, this can deter people from drinking and driving. Enforcement by itself only influences the small number of people who go through the checkpoint. The publicity is critical to creating the perception among the general public that police are out looking for drinking drivers, and the likelihood of getting caught is high.

Although combined enforcement and education can work, this approach is very expensive and must be maintained over time to be effective. Moreover, this approach misses the vast majority of the teen driver population who are already doing what they should (see the section above on “Social Norms Programs”).

Cell Phone Restriction

Distractions are risky for all drivers. However, they can be especially dangerous for inexperienced drivers who are not yet able to deal with all the complexities of driving, even when they aren’t distracted. Accordingly, in North Carolina all drivers under 18 are restricted from using a cell phone while driving. However, studies in North Carolina have shown the cell phone restriction had no effect on teen driver behavior. The ways in which people use phones is changing rapidly over time. Talking on a phone has given way to texting, and now to Tweeting, Snapchatting and posting to Instagram, etc. It can be challenging for cell phone restrictions to keep pace with rapidly changing technology and social media in the real world.