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“Human behavior” is a multidisciplinary field spanning public health, psychology, sociology, and other social sciences. These researchers endeavor to understand, explain, and even predict how humans will respond to their environment. SHSOs can learn from these other fields to improve the efficacy of their efforts. Programs or countermeasures that do not consider principles of human behavior are unlikely to be effective.

Why is it important to consider principles of human behavior when selecting countermeasures?

People are extraordinarily complex and often behave in seemingly inconsistent and unpredictable ways. Consequently, influencing or changing a behavior, which is the goal of most highway safety programs, is not a simple undertaking.

Over the past few decades, significant improvements have been made in many highway safety focus areas. Much of this improvement can be attributed to the 4- and 5-star countermeasures described in this guide. Many of the most successful countermeasures act by changing the physical or social environment to encourage the desired behavior. Environmental changes have the benefit of affecting the population as a whole, which is more efficient than trying to reach people individually. For example, universal motorcycle helmet laws affect all motorcyclists in a State by requiring helmet use. Similarly, graduated driver licensing affects all beginning young drivers in a State by restricting higher risk situations (e.g., nighttime driving) until they have experience in lower risk situations. High-visibility enforcement and publicized sobriety checkpoints change the environment by increasing the perceived risk of being caught in a community.

Education and awareness-raising campaigns are common approaches used to encourage behavior change. They are often seen as low-hanging fruits, easy, and low cost to implement but they rarely work in isolation. The goal of an awareness-raising campaign is to influence the attitudes, beliefs, or behavior of people through information and education. These campaigns often include communication strategies, such as press releases, press conferences, public service announcements, earned (free), paid, and social media, educational material like posters or brochures, and strategically placed logos or slogans. This strategy presumes that the audience lacks key information and that simply learning the information will be sufficient to change behavior.

For example, many States implement messaging around the topic of distracted driving. These messages range from general messaging around “paying attention” or “don’t drive distracted” to more specific messaging around certain distracting behaviors (for example, messages discouraging texting while driving). However, data from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety demonstrates that the public already perceives driver distraction to be a serious traffic safety issue and yet still engages in those distracting activities. Ninety-six percent of those surveyed in 2020 said that using a cell phone to text or email while driving was extremely or very dangerous and yet 37% of respondents admitted to talking on the phone while driving during the past 30 days, 34% admitted to reading a text or email while driving, and 23% admitted to having manually typed or sent an email or text message (AAAFTS, 2021). In this case, the population already recognizes the dangers of distracted driving, but that information has not been sufficient to eliminate distracted behaviors. Therefore, information alone (as in a public awareness campaign) is not likely to have a large impact.

In this guide these types of strategies generally are in the “Approaches That Are Unproven or Need Further Evaluation” section because there is little evidence of their effectiveness when used alone. However, that is not to say that education and awareness campaigns do not have their place as part of a more comprehensive approach.

Before implementing any type of awareness-raising or educational messaging, it is important to ask 3 questions:

  1. Does the audience lack this information?
    If the audience already knows the information being shared, additional efforts to “raise awareness” about the issue are unlikely to have any effect on behavior.
  2. Is the information specific?
    General safety messages that tell people to “drive safely” or “be alert” are not specific enough to be meaningful to the audience.
  3. Is it being used as part of a larger strategy for behavior change?
    Information alone rarely changes behavior.

It is also important for SHSOs to remember that behaviors and countermeasures don’t exist in isolation. With the publication of the National Roadway Safety Strategy, the U.S. DOT (2022) officially adopted the Safe System Approach for transportation safety management in the United States. The Safe System Approach is a framework for transportation safety that centers human behavior and human physiology at the heart of any safety interventions. The six main principles of the Safe System Approach are that death and serious injury are unacceptable, humans make mistakes, humans are vulnerable, responsibility is shared, safety is proactive, and redundancy is crucial. Stakeholders should approach transportation safety proactively with the goal of creating redundancies in the system. The responsibility should be shared across disciplines and include science-based safety interventions that leverage safe vehicles, safe speeds, and safe roads to protect all road users and allow for safe travel (FHWA, 2020).

Additionally, SHSOs should carefully consider equity when selecting and implementing countermeasures. Behavioral countermeasures have relied heavily on enforcement efforts in the past. While these efforts have been credited with increasing compliance with traffic safety laws, they have historically been applied in a manner that has resulted in inequities and negative interactions with law enforcement (Johns Hopkins Center et al., n.d.; Road to Zero, n.d.). It is important to understand that not all communities will respond to countermeasures in a similar way and unintentional negative consequences can have long-term community impacts. The discussions of research results using variables of race, ethnicity, and national origin in this edition are based on the cited research and in some cases conflate race and ethnicity. Whenever possible, SHSOs should assess the anticipated and potential impacts of all potential countermeasures with an equity lens prior to implementation.

SHSOs are encouraged to consider both the Safe System Approach and equity when selecting countermeasures to influence behavior. Focusing only on the behaviors that influence crash outcomes fails to address the broader, systemic, and cultural forces that influence those behaviors such as local planning policies, licensure requirements, social norms, etc. (Dumbaugh et al., 2019). A truly Safe System-based approach considers how equitably applied behavioral interventions can interact with roadway designs and safe vehicle designs to guide road users to safe habits and seeks to shore up the transportation system so that when mistakes do occur, they will not result in death or serious injury.

Opening References 

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. (2021). 2020 Traffic safety culture index.

Dumbaugh, E., Signor, K., Kumfer, W., LaJeunesse, S., Carter, D., & Merlin, L. (2019). Implementing Safe Systems in the United States: Guiding principles and lessons from international practice (Report No. CSCRS-R7). Collaborative Sciences Center for Road Safety.

Federal Highway Administration. (2020). The Safe System approach (Report No. FHWA-SA-20-015). [Web page]. 

Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Prevention, Institute of Transportation Engineers, & FIA Foundation. (n.d.). Recommendations of the Safe System consortium. Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Prevention.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (n.d.). Uniform guidelines for state highway safety programs. [Main web page and portal]. 

Road to Zero. (n.d.). Road to Zero statements on equity. National Safety Council.

U.S. Department of Transportation. (2022, January). National roadway safety strategy.