Putting behaviour change at the heart of a safe system
The 2017 Highways England Symposium on Road User Behaviour took place on 14 to 15 March 2017 at Coombe Abbey, Warwickshire. The event drew together a wide range of perspectives on behaviour as it relates to road risk, reflecting available good practice from associated domains.
Inspired by expert input from researchers, practitioners and funders and by insights shared by those working in other sectors, this paper sets out a high-level vision for a refreshed approach to behaviour change in road safety, and proposes actions that leaders in the sector can be taking now.
We begin by explaining why we think a refreshed approach is called for, and describing two revolutions we believe are driving the need for change: a revolution on our roads and a revolution in behaviour change.
The aim of this paper is not to summarise the wide-ranging and diverse perspectives shared and discussed at the event – probably an impossible task – but to offer a response to them. We’ve drawn freely on ideas from both the presentations and discussions at the event. All of the best ideas in this thinkpiece are ‘stolen goods’. Any mistakes or inanities are entirely our own.
This report presents findings from qualitative research carried out with cyclists and other road-users in June 2009. That research was itself part of a larger programme for the Department of Transport. (You can download the full report at the foot of this page.)
The report is quite broad ranging, but my favourite part – if a researcher is allowed such a thing – is the Section 6 on sharing the road. And here’s my favourite quote:
“Whatever the law may say on the matter, the norms of road sharing, on roads with lane widths and speeds designed around cars, mean that cyclists are treated as anomalies.”
They’re not in the report, but I later created two simple pictures – below – to explain this point visually. In the first image the ‘cyclists’ look untidy and all over the place. In the second image the ‘cars’ look greedy. All that has changed is the ‘road markings’.
Passion, performance, practicality: a segmentation of motorcyclists
In this project, delivered by a multidisciplinary team and using mixed methods, we set out to look beyond the easy stereotypes and engage with the diversity of different people who use powered two-wheelers on the roads.
There’s a link to the full report at the bottom of this page. Here, I’d like to say a few words about the topic of segmentation.
Are there really just seven types of motorcyclist?
Are there really just seven types of motorcyclist? Not six, or eight? Is everyone just one type, or can you be a mix? Can you be one type on weekdays and another at the weekend?
May answers to these questions are: No. Who knows? Not sure. Maybe.
The important point to grasp is that segmentations are NOT descriptions of reality. What a segmentation study like this is saying is: “For certain defined purposes, pretending that there are just these seven types of motorcyclist, in these proportions, will lead you to make better decisions than, for instance, treating all motorcylists as if they were the same.”
The reality, of course, is that every individual is different. Human beings are complex beings, not reducible to a few dimensions or a two-by-two. And human practices are intricate and nuanced cultural entities. There is, we might say, no such thing as a rider, and no such thing as riding: there are a lot of people who engage in activities which happen to have in common the use of a powered two-wheeler.
Decision-making and the value of segmentation
Researchers like me delight in this kind of complexity. A heart, I’m a naturalist: I love nothing more than to wander out into the world human experience and do what I can to record and catalogue its inspiring diversity.
But, unlike me, my clients have to make decisions. How to encourage the use of protective clothing, for example; or how to promote safer behaviours. And from this perspective, diversity is not inspiring: it’s baffling.
Every individual is different: but it is not practical to have a policy, a strategy, a proposition tailored to every individual.
One solution, of course, is to target the average. But in a diverse population, that can do more harm than good. There’s an old joke about a physicist, a chemist and a statistician hunting: the physicist shoots and misses the stag by one metre to the left; the chemist misses by one meter to the right; and the statistician shouts: “We got it!”
Segmentations are a pragmatic response to this challenge. You can’t tailor to every individual. But you can’t pretend everyone is average either. Instead you use the evidence to create a model which will help you get a handle on the complexity.
Segmentations and purpose
A crucial rider (pardon the pun) to all of the above. Segmentations are designed for a particular purpose. They won’t necessarily work for another. Because – remember – they are NOT descriptions of the reality. They are pragmatic and purposive
If you’re manufacturing T-shirts, for example, it makes sense to segment the incredible diversity of human shapes and sizes into, say, S, M, L and XL.
But that segmentation is not going to be so useful if you manufacture off-the-peg suits. And it’s even less helpful if you make shoes.
Strapping yarns: why people do and do not wear seatbelts
My enduring memory of this project is the time I spent sitting under a gazebo, listening to people to whom the police had just given a choice between paying their fine or talking to me.
Of course, most of what I heard was self-justificatory post-rationalisation, rather than a real answer to the question: why do some people sometimes not wear seatbelts? But we used what we heard to create ‘characters’ which we then presented as stimulus material in workshops with participants who also confessed to not always wearing one.
“Oh yes,” they’d say when they saw the excuses we’d heard, “that’s what they would say. What actually happened was probably this…”
Young driver, learner and pre-driver perspectives on driving and learning to drive
These two reports – The Good, the Bad and the Talented and Feeling Safe, Itching to Drive (download lnks at bottom of page) – are from the very first road safety projects I worked on. I didn’t set out to do a lot of work in road safety, but I’m so grateful to have had that opportunity.
In part, that’s because it is good to work towards goals which are so unquestionably worthwhile. Anything that reduces the numbers of people killed or injured on the road is a good thing.
But alongside that there are more selfish, more geeky reasons why I enjoy working in road safety. As an applied domain of the human sciences, I think it is perhaps unique in that:
It is relevant to everyone. Public roads are one of the few remaining arenas where everyone, from every part of our society, is present. Sadly, accident and emergency departments are another.
Every strand of human behaviour is implicated – and people know this. In the Young Driver report, for example, we explain how the young drivers we spoke to see driving as a task with physical, social and emotional dimensions.
Things really get done. Not enough, perhaps, and not always in the right way. But road safety is a domain in which a researcher can experience that most thrilling of feelings: actually making a diference to something.