Recently Ontario put in place stiffer penalties to prevent distracted driving. Ontario is not alone in the fight against distracted driving. It is a major problem everywhere as we become more attached to our smartphones. To combat this problem in Ontario, legislation passed that allows for stricter fines and penalties for drivers who use their phone while driving. But yet, increasing the punishment isn’t always the most effective way at changing behaviour. Especially when we are trying to get people to separate their connection to their phone.
One of the main issues with preventing distracted driving is that most drivers are in denial. Drivers recognize the severity of texting and driving, but they don’t think the problem applies to them, just to poor drivers. This denial stems from our human nature to overestimate our own abilities. This type of overconfidence is called the superiority bias. Essentially, we think we’re better at things than we actually are despite all the evidence to the contrary.
In this case, driving while distracted is the behaviour that we are overestimating. Consider that a study found that over 88% of US students rated their driving ability and driver safety in the top 50% of all drivers. These overestimates of our driving abilities are not just specific to US drivers, but a universal mindset.
Our superiority bias is usually a good thing. It helps build our self-confidence. No one wants to think they are the worst at everything, whether it be shooting a free throw or performing at their job. But the superiority bias hurts us when the behaviour we overestimate can actually lead to some serious consequences. In the case of distracted driving, we overestimate our ability to multitask. We all multitask. Whether it is at work or at home. Some of you are probably doing it right now, but when it comes to multitasking while driving our actual abilities are way worse than we would expect. In fact, a study compared the effect of driving while texting to driving while intoxicated, and found that when they controlled for everything else, driving while texting impaired a driver's ability to control their speed and reaction even more so than driving while intoxicated.
How can we prevent people from engaging in distracted driving? Researchers and policy makers are turning to behavioural economics to incite the right kind of behaviour change. Principles from behavioural economics have worked to help people conserve energy, save money, and live healthier. Why not help to improve our driving?
In fact, there is a movement of applying behaviour economics principles to prevent distracted driving. Here are 4 behaviour change principles that can be applied to prevent people from driving while using their phone.
People will often look to those around them for cues about how to act appropriately. Our dependency on the behaviour of others gives rise to the phenomena of herd behaviour. As you’d expect from the name, herd behaviour refers to people's bias to follow in the footsteps of the majority. Just like being in a herd of buffalo, it tends to be safer to go with the herd than against it.
The idea behind Social Proof and Herd Behaviour can apply to distracted driving by reinforcing the fact that most drivers don’t drive distracted. Even though the intention is to shed light on distracted driving, communications warning people that distracted driving is on the rise can actually do more harm than good. Telling people that the majority of people don’t drive distracted reinforces that the appropriate behaviour is to drive safely, and not mislead people from assuming that checking their phone, even everyone once in a while, is an acceptable form of behaviour while driving.
Make it personal
When it comes to inciting social change, messages that create a personal connection with consumers are far more influential than mass messages. Personal communications avoid the problem of “diffusion of responsibility”. Unfortunately, mass communication can lead to inaction since people mistakenly assume that someone else will change their behaviour, when in fact no one changes.
The “diffusion of responsibility” is a serious problem that impacts all social change movements. Messaging framed from the perspective of the masses, such as energy conservation initiatives that tell people “if everyone turned their thermostat down a degree, then….” or donation initiatives that say “if everyone gave $1, then...”, are prone to give people a false sense of reassurance that something will get done. Communications about preventing distracted driving can easily fall into this trap since distracted driving is a problem that impacts everyone, but its solution is dependent on individual action.
Reward vs Punishment
Changing behaviour usually depends on using either the carrot or the stick. On one hand, you have the “carrot”, which represents the reward someone can get for doing something well. A common example of a reward, or positive reinforcement, is treating yourself to your favourite dessert for going to the gym 3 times a week.
On the other hand, the “stick” represents the punishment that someone can experience for doing something they’re not supposed to do. Here, an example would be grounding a teenager for staying out past their curfew.
Now the question is what works better for preventing distracted driving? Should we reward drivers for driving safely or punish drivers for distracted driving? In almost every case, governments have taken the same approach as in Ontario, and increased the penalties associated with distracted driving. However, there are only a handful of examples of initiatives that have rewarded drivers for not using their phone while driving.
One example, ironically enough, is a mobile app called SafeDrive. The SafeDrive app rewards people for not using their phone while driving by gameifying real-life driving. Users of the app are rewarded with points based on how safe they drove. Users can then exchange their points in a marketplace and even challenge other drivers to beat their safety score.
My favourite example of applying behavioural economics to distracted driving has to do with overcoming future discounting. The future discounting bias leads us to overvalue what we can get in the present compared to the future.
Think you are immune to future discounting? Ask yourself, would you rather have $100 right now or $110 a month from now? If you are like most people, you’ll pick the $100 now and discount the extra money you’d get in the future.
When you replace money in the previous example with information, things get really interesting.
The temptation of having your smartphone with you while driving leads people to weigh the benefit of immediate information versus delayed information. The nonstop deluge of “social information” coming in from our social media accounts, our email and notifications are rapidly devaluing our “social information” currency. Our need for “informational instant gratification” is actually incentivizing us to prefer information in the now rather than waiting to check our social media updates later when the info could be dated.
What we fail to realize when we overvalue the immediate access to social information is the quality of the information. Not all information is the same. Finding out that Tom Brady suspension was not upheld is not the same as finding out that your boss needs you to send them the report ASAP. But since we don’t know what we are going to find out until we check our phone, we end up treating all information as equal. Normally this isn’t a problem, but when tempted to check our phone while driving, we can make a terrible mistake only to find out something that is completely unnecessary.
In fact, AT&T developed a campaign called “It Can Wait” that centered on that very idea. “It Can Wait” connects to our future discounting bias because it asks drivers to weigh the relative value of immediate versus delayed social information. In that respect, that campaign is working to overcome future discounting by making us aware of the irrationality of our bias.
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