What Will Really Deter People From Engaging in Distracted Driving?

Changing Driver Behavior
Nov 18/2016 Published by: Lytx Lytx Telematics

This article has the feel of my August 2011 article, The Danger of a Cell Phone Policy without Enforcement. Safety training and education is typically the first line of defense in any safety program. Training and education programs provide information or knowledge. This is a necessary, but insufficient, safety intervention. People require knowledge regarding how to safely perform a behavior and/or that certain behaviors are unsafe. I think it’s a good assumption that most people are aware that distracted driving is dangerous. Thus, people do not have a knowledge gap, they have a motivation gap. More simply stated, people have knowledge that distracted driving is unsafe; however, they choose to engage in this behavior because it is rewarded in some way.

This motivation gap is evident in the National Occupant Protection Use Survey (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2011). The NOPUS is an observation study where researchers are stationed at various intersections and record various driver behaviors (seat-belt use, cell phone use, etc.). Although many laws and educational campaigns regarding distracted driving have been implemented in recent years, the NOPUS found that cell phone use has remained relatively stable since 2002.

As I pointed out in my August 2011 article, the laws themselves are not to blame, but rather the lack of effective enforcement. A recent study I completed (Hickman et al., in press) using DriveCam data evaluated the effectiveness of State cell phone laws and fleet cell phone policies. The data clearly showed that fleet cell phone policies were effective in reducing cell phone use while driving; however, the State cell phone laws had no effect on driver behavior. The DriveCam system allowed these fleets to accurately monitor their drivers and implement consequences or rewards that would directly impact the driver. A high visibility enforcement campaign in New York supported this hypothesis (Cogrove et al., 2011). The message is clear, a policy is only as effective as your ability to enforce the policy; otherwise it’s like having no policy.

Previous research suggests that laws themselves may not alter long-term behavior change, but the key to affecting change is how strictly these laws are enforced and/or the perception of these laws being enforced (resulting in driver adherence to the laws). For example, Kim (1991) and Campbell (1988) found a relationship between the frequency of seat-belt citations and observed seat-belt use. Chaudhary, Soloman and Cosgrove (2004) showed that the perception of being ticketed for a seat-belt infraction was enough to alter safety-belt use. Thus, proper enforcement (i.e., increased fines and/or police presence) would be expected to be necessary for the law to be effective.

Seat-belt use is a great comparison with distracted driving. Today, seat-belt use hovers around 90%; however, in the 80s it was barely at 50% usage. With increased educational and enforcement campaigns over the years, wearing your seat belt while driving has become part of our driving culture. Seat-belt use is an almost automatic behavior – we “buckle-up” as soon as we sit in our cars. It’s likely that a similar effort over a similar period of time will be required for attentive driving to become part of our driving culture.


Dr. Hickman joined the Center for Truck and Bus Safety at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in 2004 and became the Group  Leader for the Behavioral Analysis and Applications group in 2009.  He has significant experience in the design, delivery, and implementation of safety and health improvement interventions using behavior-based and person-based psychology and human factors applications.  His primary areas of research include community-wide (large scale) applications of behavior-based safety, self-management, and organizational culture change techniques as well as assessing driver behavior, fatigue, work/rest cycles, and driver distraction in commercial motor operations. Although specializing in commercial motor vehicle safety, Dr. Hickman’s research interests are broadly defined as occupational health and safety.

Dr. Hickman has been the PI, Co-PI, or Project Manager in 35 research projects (totaling over $10 million).  These research projects include competitive research awards from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Mine Health and Safety Administration, National Transportation Research Center, Inc., Transportation Research Board, Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators, and the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety. Dr. Hickman has over 60 professional presentations, including invited talks at Duke Energy, Sherwin-Williams, National Private Truck Council, Maersk, Pike Energy Corporation, and XL Insurance. Dr. Hickman has over 30 scientific publications and technical reports, served as a scientific reviewer for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in fiscal year 2012, and currently serves as a reviewer for the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Accident Analysis and Prevention, and Journal of Organizational Behavior Management.

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