Can drivers be taught a lesson?

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.

  1. 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.

15 thoughts on “Can drivers be taught a lesson?”

  1. I don’t believe including cycling on the road as part of driver training would help at all. I think people all too quickly forget their empathy when in their cars.

    I have a friend who rides bikes for pleasure. But he’s not a cyclist – he drives everywhere, even to his local food shop about 1/2m away from his home. The times I have been in a car with him have been awful, and I never get in his car now, because he drives very fast, overtakes cyclists aggressively, and really believes he is a good driver. It’s terrifying.

  2. I am really not convinced that including cycling on the road as part of driver training would help at all. There was a time, not so long ago, when most people would have been regular cyclist before they learned to drive. Riding a bicycle used to be the way in which teenagers got about, but none of those people are better drivers as a result.

    Driver training could be improved, more emphasis could be placed on explaining why there are certain rule of the roads. One of the problems is that few driver really understand the things they are taught for their driving test. All too often I have heard people say “you only lean that for your test”, most drivers do not seem to understand that the way you drive for the driving test is the way you are supposed to drive all the time. The driving test, tests your ability to drive to safely to a minimum standard, every thing you learn for you test is for a reason.

    A more effective way of changing behaviour would be to have far stricter enforcement of the rules, with penalties which actually mean something. Yes there will be a certain amount of resistance to this from those who don’t understand which the rules are there in the first place. This should be taken as an opportunity to make it very clear why the rules are there and what a drivers responsibilities are. We need to make bad driving socially unacceptable.

    1. “A more effective way of changing behaviour would be to have far stricter enforcement of the rules, with penalties which actually mean something.”

      I would assume this as well.

      The literature I skimmed says it works, but not whether it’s more effective.

      It may not work as well as I’d assume. Enforcement may only have a short-term impact on individuals, in terms of time since penalty, and distance from enforcers [1,2]. The increase in enforcement may need to be large [2]. Perception of the likelihood of being caught is important [2,3].

      I can’t find a Cochrane review of exactly this issue; however, reviews of speed cameras [4] and drink-driving [5] found that, despite poor study quality, increased camera or police presence reduces crashes, deaths and injuries.

      “We need to make bad driving socially unacceptable.”

      We do. How do overcome drivers’ overestimation of their driving skill [6]*? Enforcement may work better than social pressure.

      * Though not to the extent that some surveys comparing to the “average driver” imply [7].


  3. In my long-ish and non-managerial career, I’ve learned a few rules of management. One is that if you want something to happen, make it easy. The other is that sincere, important requests, include a wheelbarrow full of money.

  4. I know people like Paul’s friend as well. We probably all do. Counter-intuitively, and contrary to the myth, there doesn’t seem to be that much correlation between riding a bike and driving carefully. It is as if, for many, the excitement of being behind the wheel of a powerful machine trounces any learned empathy for other types of road-users. Which all reinforces the case for infrastructure as the most practical way of making cyclists (and pedestrians) safe.

    Vole O’Speed

  5. I’ve often though about the lack of empathy of drivers, and the conclusion I’ve come to is that the problem is the nature of the car.

    Touched on by Pirsig in Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the driver is not fundamentally a part of his/her environment. They sit within a box which is separated from the environment. You do not feel the same rush of wind or the raindrops on your face. In fact – what you experience is akin to watching TV or playing a computer game.

    As an artilleryman or a bombardier does not see the consequences of their actions at a human level – neither does the driver until it is too late.

    Sat within their steel box the driver does not feel empathy because they are disconnected from everyone and everything around them.

  6. I have not looked into the Cochrane reviews you refer to here, but as far as the Cochrane reviews on bicycle helmets are concerned, there are several reasons why they should not be taken at face value. As has been pointed out in peer reviewed journals. Apparrently the quality control on Cochrane reviews is much more lax (or influenced by biases ) than we would like.

  7. Most people I’ve suggested this to have not been fans, but I am curious to know if any government has considered a “dead man’s boots” approach to driving licenses, one out, one in. Or a quota, whereby only [x] new drivers are allowed to get a license per year, the numbers made up from the people with the very best test scores. An advantage of a quota is that it could provide a way to start reducing the number of drivers overall (plus banned drivers would have to work really hard to re-gain their licenses). Obviously we’d need to be doing thorough research throughout the trial period.

  8. Mmm, I see the problem.

    Unfortunately my experience as a cyclist is that “infrastructure” for segregating bikes from cars normally means putting the bikes in with the pedestrians. As a pedestrian this leaves me dodging irresponsible cyclists, and as a cyclist this often leaves me travelling at the speed of the slowest pedestrian in order to avoid being irresponsible. No doubt motorists are just happy to have all those nasty cyclists out of their way.

    1. Ethifel this worries me too but I’m assuming the seperate infrastructure advocates are working on the basis that once cycling modal share goes up (a lot!) the roads and shared use lanes will be much nicer places to be, ie cyclists peds and cars all get along nicely. Dunno if this is wishful thinking.

      Mr C’s quota system sounds interesting.

      Strict liability would be nice to have in the UK.

  9. Perhaps this is slightly off topic, but: If we define education to include all mechanisms for changing voluntary behavior, I think there’s good evidence that motorists can be educated. Two specific examples are campaigns against drunken driving, and strict liability laws.

    Regarding the first, the group Mothers Against Drunken Driving in the U.S. has waged a very successful campaign to reduce impaired driving. It did not consist primarily of classroom education; instead, it was a campaign to change the behavior of judges, police and motorists through heavy publicity. And whereas driving home near-drunk from a party was once socially acceptable, it is now much more frowned upon. Social pressure as education has worked.

    Regarding the strict liability laws: All I’ve heard indicates that if such laws are implemented (i.e. if a motorist is legally assumed at fault for harming a cyclist or pedestrian) then motorists’ behavior changes. We were in Zurich soon after such a law was implemented, and our hosts said it transformed the city. Is it education? Not entirely – but “educating” motorists about the new law probably counts.

    I think we’ve done far too little with mass media campaigns. Motorists should be bombarded with billboards, TV spots, radio spots, magazine articles, etc. telling them that cyclists have full rights to the road, and calling for “One strike and your out” laws regarding motorists who seriously harm another road user. Maim a bicyclist? Never drive again, period!

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