Road safety education: how important is emotion?

by Leanne Savigar, PhD student in Criminology

 To what extent would the presentation of a road safety statistic influence your driver behaviour? Would the ability to recognise speed limits from your surroundings stop you speeding? Would confessing your offender behaviour ensure that you never offended again?

For a number of national driver awareness courses, it is expected that the presentation of such information and discussion of your offence with an independent professional and other individuals who have been caught committing an offence is able to engender some form of attitudinal and behavioural change.

For a vast array of traffic offences ranging from speeding to using a mobile phone while driving the National Driver Offender Retraining Scheme (NDORS) provides education as an alternative to prosecution. Individuals committing an offence may be offered this alternative providing that the criteria for attendance are met.

traffic, man, person

Perceptions of these courses have been varied, with some drivers finding the content useful as a reminder of the rules and regulations of the road, but other articles and blog posts describing personal experiences of such courses being less beneficial. The National Speed Awareness Course, or NSAC, was described by Polly Hudson as ‘My Speed Awareness Hell’ and an article written by Dave Jenkins ended with a ‘Speed Awareness Course bingo’ that was said to be needed in order to maintain concentration levels.

Despite these often critical statements, research conducted regarding the NSAC suggested that the course has many benefits to driver attitudes and behaviour. 99% of drivers involved in the final stage of the evaluation conducted by Brainbox Research on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers stated that they had changed their behaviour following attendance at the course. This is a considerable benefit that the course appears to provide. However, there is little information given regarding the behaviour that has changed following the course, and whether that behaviour change resulted in less offending or simply allowed drivers to better avoid getting caught.

Indeed, in a report on his attendance at the national What’s Driving Us? course, Danny Shaw stated that he learnt how to avoid being caught above and beyond any other learning process that was expected to take place. In his report of the course that is offered as an alternative to prosecution for offences such as using a mobile phone while driving or running a red light, Danny highlights a number of interesting points to be made regarding the use of such driver awareness courses. In particular, he questioned the material provided in an attempt to encourage behaviour change and asks why videos of incidents and real life stories of individuals impacted by such behaviour were not presented. Alongside this he identified the lack of research that has been conducted regarding such driver awareness courses.

Free stock photo of person, woman, smartphone, car

Our knowledge of the success of driver awareness courses does remain limited, with only a small number of evaluations assessing the impact of the NSAC and no formal evaluation yet conducted of the What’s Driving Us? course. With over 1.4 million people attending one of seven NDORS driver awareness courses in 2015, and the number of people attending a What’s Driving Us? course at almost 125,000 after only four years of its introduction, we should be able to say more about the effectiveness of such courses.

As so many people are being caught and experiencing education as an alternative to prosecution it is vital that they are experiencing a form of education that is most likely to impact upon their road user attitudes and behaviour. In order to do this research must be conducted to recognise the most successful aspects of road safety education and amendments must be made to current driver awareness courses that are failing to provide significant benefits to driver attitudes and behaviour, and most importantly to their offender behaviour.

In terms of the lack of graphic, real-life content of driver awareness courses, there is one course that is provided in the UK that does deliver exactly this. Crash Course, offered by Staffordshire Police for those caught in Staffordshire not wearing a seatbelt or using a mobile phone while driving, is an emotional and hard-hitting style of driver awareness course. It differs from the nationally run courses in its provision of video footage from those involved in incidents and the discussion of personal, real-life stories from the presenters who have themselves, in some way, been involved in an incident resulting in death or serious injury. Statistics and information regarding the offence are given, although the accompanying images, videos and stories provide a level of emotional impact that cannot be obtained through the use of statistics alone.

Research currently being conducted by myself explores the use of such emotional education as an alternative to prosecution and situates it within a wider understanding of traffic offending and responses to that offending. Within the final stages of the project, I am currently analysing a wealth of data that has been collected regarding various aspects of these processes.

The research project looks at the use of education as an alternative to prosecution, with a particular focus on mobile phone use while driving as little research has been conducted in this area. Data have been collected through various methods and from a number of different perspectives in an attempt to provide a comprehensive understanding of the topic.

Questionnaires completed by individuals before attending a driver awareness course, immediately after and again 6 months later have been complemented with interview data exploring their experience of being caught committing an offence, attending a driver awareness course and subsequent road user attitudes and behaviour.

Alongside this, policing professionals have been interviewed regarding their own experiences of understanding legislation based on changing technology, identifying offenders and offering education as an alternative to prosecution.

Observations of the driver awareness course itself and interviews with presenters of the course allow for an understanding of the emotive nature of the course that differs from the national ‘What’s Driving Us?’ course, referred to in the article by Danny Shaw, that individuals may be offered if caught committing the offence elsewhere in the UK.

document, identity, united kingdom

Initial preliminary analyses of this appear to show considerable benefits to driver attitudes and behaviour following attendance at the course. The most frequently mentioned memorable and impactful aspect of the course is the discussion of real-life personal experiences, that which differentiates Crash Course from the nationally offered courses. After attending Crash Course, 98% of offenders agreed that the use of real-life stories was effective. Preliminary analyses of follow-up data collected six months after attending the course appear to show reductions in the attitudinal and behavioural benefits of the course, but not reaching the level observed prior to course attendance. Further analysis is needed to assess the success of the course in providing attitudinal and behavioural change, however, if this provision of emotion-filled presentation of information is that which is able to encourage the most attitudinal and behavioural change then the implications of this must be considered further. NDORS courses run throughout the UK may be able to learn from such a course, and vice versa should additional research also be published regarding their success.

It is certainly true that not enough research has actually been conducted in the area and much more is needed to ensure that what is being offered is provided in the most effective format possible. As so many people are evidently being caught and experiencing education as an alternative to prosecution it is vital that they are experiencing a form of education that is most likely to impact upon their road user attitudes and behaviour. The research that I am currently conducting attempts to explore this issue and provide some understanding of the impact of such education, although this must be complemented with additional research in the field. I will be attending an International Conference on Traffic and Transport Psychology in Brisbane in early August to present some of the details and findings from my research at an international level.

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