M’coblogger Ed thinks there is a case for teaching drivers to behave — specifically by appeals to patriotism. Education programmes are a popular idea amongst cyclists, cash-strapped councils, and road safety types. I dismissed them as a solution that doesn’t work in my own post on revenge and road danger, but didn’t go into any detail. So I thought I better ask: what’s the best evidence we have about driver education programmes?
Remember what I said about bicycle helmets. It may be common sense that teaching drivers will make roads safer and nicer places to be, but common sense is frequently wrong, and cures can kill if they’re based on common sense rather than evidence. Trying to educate drivers could make the roads safer and nicer. It could be entirely ineffective. Or it could make them more dangerous and less pleasant. Until we conduct a controlled trial, we don’t know which.
There are two systematic reviews from the Cochrane Collaboration looking at the effectiveness of driver education programmes. Cochrane reviews are, remember, the independent synthesis of everything that we know about a particular intervention, and are considered by doctors to be the closest thing we can ever get to fact.
The first Cochrane Review looks at the effectiveness of driver education in existing drivers. The schemes that have been trialled particularly focus on advanced driver training — the sort of programme that is designed to improve hazard detection and reduce error making, and which is frequently recommended for professional drivers — and on the remedial programmes that are increasingly offered to drivers who break the rules as an alternative to a driving ban. These are lessons and lectures rather than marketing campaigns, but the remedial programmes — lectures on why speed limits matter — are particularly relevant to the “be nice” approach to making our streets nicer places where people feel able to ride bicycles.
The review found 24 trials from 1962 to 2002, all in the US except for one in Sweden, with more than 300,000 participants between them. With those sorts of numbers, there is little chance of the review accidentally getting a false result. Four were for advanced driving courses, the rest for remedial classes. The programmes ranged from the simple supply of written material (9 trials) — a letter and copy of the rule book — through group lectures (16 trials) to proper one-on-one classes (7 trials), but all were designed to improve “driver performance and safety”.
The trials typically checked up on participants two years later and compared the rate of rule breaking and/or the rate of crashes in those who received the education programme and the controls who did not. There was no difference. The education programmes didn’t stop drivers breaking the law or having crashes. The authors concluded that companies shouldn’t bother with driving courses for their staff, but should let them take the train instead.
The evidence reviewed isn’t perfect. They could not, for example, blind participants as to whether they were in the study or control group. And the conclusions apply to the 32 specific advance driving courses and remedial classes that were trialled — we can not say for sure that other types of education campaign wouldn’t work. But the evidence tells us to at least be very wary of investing in any campaign strategy that relies on teaching people to play nice.
The second Cochrane review looks at the effectiveness of educating school kids before they start driving. These are the sort of programmes that are supposed to address the fact that 17-21 year old drivers are twice as likely to crash as the average driver. They are particularly popular with the Road Safety industry and there are several varieties common in this country. Indeed, I have first hand experience: it must have been during the final GCSE year, aged 15 or 16, that we were all taken to the Bovington tank training circuit to take it in turns driving hatchbacks (sadly no tanks) around the track, doing hill starts, three point turns, reverse parking, and, as a treat afterwards, emergency stops from 70mph. While not everybody is privileged enough to get real practical lessons, the government does at least make sure that kids are taught how to get a learner’s license and find an instructor, what tests they will need to take, and are given a few road safety messages.¹ *
The Cochrane review found three RCTs with a total of around 18,000 students. The review looked at the public health outcome of the trials, typically measured as the rate of crashes and/or violations in the first few years of holding a license. Giving school kids driving education did not reduce the incidence of crashes and violations.
Indeed, the authors, against common sense, found evidence of the opposite. The reason can be found in the other outcome that the trials measured: the time it took the kids from turning 17 (or whatever age was relevant in their particular locality) to passing their driving test (which the study gives the awful name “license delay”). Kids who were given driving classes at school were more likely to seek and obtain a license, and they did so earlier — and we already know that age correlates with crash rate and rule breaking (or at the very least, being caught and punished for rule breaking). Driving classes in school weren’t making people drive safely, but they were making people drive.
You can see why driver education programmes are so popular with the road safety industry, puppet of the motoring lobby. The trials reviewed by Cochrane were all from the mid 1980s, yet we continue to put money and effort into programmes that are worse than useless. My own school driving lesson was fifteen years after school driving lessons were shown to be harmful to our health.
Whenever questioned, the government cites as justification its own non-controlled study which showed that kids are able to recall and are vaguely more likely to agree with specific road safety messages when asked three months after the lessons. No, really. That’s it.¹
So drivers can be taught. They can be taught, before they even become drivers, that driving is normal, just something that everybody does. The moment I turned 17 I wasted about a hundred quid on driving lessons before I stopped to ask myself why. Everybody was doing it, right? You do GCSEs at 16, driving at 17, ‘A’-levels at 18. That’s how it works.
Perhaps they can be taught to behave and we just haven’t worked out how yet. There are not, so far as I am aware, any trials on the effectiveness of making motorists try cycling on the roads. But I suspect even that would have limited effect, and maybe even that could backfire too.
Because people generally don’t do what they’re told to do, they do whatever looks normal and natural and easy. You can call that selfish and lazy if you like, but I don’t think that will help you understand or overcome the behaviour. In the UK it is normal and natural and easy to learn to drive and then drive badly. And people refuse to be taught that the things which are normal and natural and easy, the things that everybody around them is doing, are wrong. Experience trumps the word of others.
In the Netherlands, incidentally, cycling is normal and natural and, thanks to the infrastructure, easy. In the UK it’s none of those things. Make it easy and you’re nine tenths of the way to making it normal and natural.
- Achara et al 2001. Evidence based road safety: the Driving Standards Agency’s schools programme. The Lancet, 358:230-232
* Note that I am damning this schools road safety policy on the basis of a ten year old reference, and so all I really know is that applies to a ten year old policy. I’ll be following it up to see if and how that policy has evolved another time. It just seemed like too good a tale about the government’s commitment to evidence-based policy not to mention it right away.