Education, Publicity and Training in Road Safety: a literature review

Monash University Accident Research Centre - Report #22 - 1992

Author: M. Henderson

Full report in pdf format [230KB]


The objectives of this review were as follows: to identify those publications in the worldwide literature on education, publicity and training in road safety that have been based on the results of good research, and to come to conclusions applicable to the Australian context. The important relationship between performance and behaviour was identified: performance relates to skills that can be taught, and behaviour to what a road user actually does on the road. In Australia and elsewhere, education and publicity have been most successful in modifying behaviour when combined with laws that are themselves directly related to safety, and that are strictly enforced. Other good results from education have come from efforts directed at high-risk and receptive groups such as children. Training of controlled groups such as the drivers of heavy vehicles appears to have given some good results. However, no methods of training for drivers or riders have consistently been shown to be better than others, and the results in general have been disappointing. Perception and understanding are likely to be emphasised in training in the future, together with an integrated approach that brings together individual problems.

Executive Summary

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in behavioural countermeasures. They have gained strength through their combination with other advances, including those based on technology. For example, the use of better and more effective child restraint systems can be encouraged by education and enforced by law. Another set of behavioural changes that have had a beneficial effect on traffic accident losses in Australia are those aimed at drinking and driving. In this case, vigorous and tightly targeted mass media campaigns have been combined with a research-based set of drink driving laws, embracing what is known as 'random' breath testing, or RBT. The result has been a hastened fall in drink related traffic accidents.

The interacting roles of performance and behaviour

Measures centred on changing human behaviour through education and publicity must, if they are to be successful, be based on a proper appreciation of how and why people act as they do on the roads.

The traffic system places high demands on all road users. If such demands are not mastered, or dealt with wrongly, then the system is 'failing' and a collision becomes possible. The way we cope with all the demands imposed upon us by the traffic system depends not only on the way we perform, but also on the way we behave.

'Performance' relates to our abilities to perceive and react to circumstances in an appropriate and timely manner. It is the manifestation of what we call 'skill'. 'Behaviour', although closely related, is different. It refers to what we actually do, not what we are able to do, and thus includes factors such as the perception and acceptance of risk, cultural and peer-group pressures, and so on.

The distinction between performance and behaviour helps us to examine road user education critically, because at least, in our adult lives we perform at a level that depends on how we choose to cope with the task demanded of us.

A skilled driver, for instance, may choose to negotiate a complicated driving task faster than another who is less skilled, and in so doing, trades increased speed against increased safety. Those drivers who choose a wide margin of safety, on the other hand, are able to cope more easily with the errors of others, including the children, the elderly, the drunk and the incompetent. This view of the driving task has important implications, and could account for some disappointing outcome studies of driver training. It could also account for differences in the reported success rates for the training of professional as opposed to 'amateur' drivers.

There is still no effective complete model of how people drive or how they learn to do so. If driver education and training is to progress, it will be in association with the results of carefully-designed human factors and educational research.

Mass communications

Research indicates that people are most likely to change their behaviour following mass education that has the following characteristics:

  • includes specific detailed recommendations of the behaviour in question and how to modify it;
  • perceived as coming from a highly credible source;
  • balances the pros and cons of an argument rather than being purely one sided;
  • draws the conclusions clearly for the audience;
  • is combined with the enforcement of effective laws.

Road safety campaigns are most likely to be successful if advertising is only one element in a total campaign, with specific tasks to be undertaken. Usually, behaviour changes will not be among the outcomes that can be accomplished by the campaign by itself. Road safety mass media campaigns can achieve, and have achieved, the following:

  • an increased awareness of a problem or a behaviour;
  • a raise in the level of information about a topic or issue;
  • help in the formation of beliefs, especially where beliefs are not held formally;
  • the establishment of a topic as more salient;
  • sensitisation of the audience to other forms of communication.

These are objectives that are supplementary to accident reduction, but that have effects without which safer behaviour is unlikely to be achieved.

An important target group for education is drinking drivers. The successes of public education in helping to reduce the incidence of drink-driving and alcohol-related crashes lie primarily in the unique way which, in Australia particularly, they have been combined with tightly-enforced legislation. The education helps to build support for laws and their enforcement, it helps to explain what the laws mean, and it helps to maintain a high visibility for the laws so that a high perceived risk of apprehension is maintained. Both in New South Wales and, more recently, in Victoria, good studies have shown how public educational efforts can be integrated with other aspects of random breath testing with the aim of maximising the effects of RBT legislation.

The results of evaluations of a selection of public education campaigns are tabulated at the conclusion of this summary.

Driver Training

Proponents of driver education, particularly of children while still at school, hold that instruction then is crucial. It reaches young people at a time they attain legal licensing age and are thus highly motivated to learn. They argue that it is only common sense that driver education is helpful in reducing the rate of accidents and injuries, because such courses teach proper driving manoeuvres and the rules of the road.

The evaluation of driver training programs, however, has been fraught with many problems, and most early studies that showed benefits to flow from such training were deficient. Later studies have not shown that training novice drivers in American schools is effective in reducing accidents. It encourages more young people to use the roads, with a net effect that can be negative. Other studies have not been able to show that any single form of training is more effective than another. Training which relies solely on imparting the skills of car control has not been shown to reduce subsequent accident rates.

It is certainly true to say that just because an approach has not worked in the past does not mean that it would not work in the future if was to be undertaken differently. It may have been that the importance of improving skills as part of training has been overestimated, or that more research is required into what skills are most germane to safe road use and to training. Further, an approach worth investigating (and evaluating) is that skills training should be more closely integrated with other educational and promotional approaches to road safety, so that it might better be placed in a social and environmental context by those being trained.

The drivers of heavy vehicles are commonly singled out for special training, and it appears that in a well-managed and safety-conscious company, training can reduce accident rates. The performance and behaviour of motorcyclists have also long been a matter of especial concern, with local research indicating some benefits from the combination of new training and test methods. Overseas studies have not been so optimistic.

Evaluation of measures is an essential step towards making education more effective, and outcomes may validly embrace goals that are wider than accident prevention alone. Table 1 summarises evaluation studies of a selection of educational measures and publicity campaigns that have been undertaken throughout the world in recent years. Reference to the text of the full review is essential for a proper understanding of the importance of each of these studies.

The basic task of road safety education is to help people recognise and select a safe environment and situations. To act safely on the roads is a goal that is related to lifestyle and environmental awareness, and in turn to public health for all.

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