Instant rewards, penalties, and feedback are shown to change driver behavior

By Robbie Webber

A new study shows that tiny financial losses can improve motorists’ compliance with speed limits. The study’s researchers found that the psychology of losing money, even just a few pennies, as well as the instant feedback of seeing the money trickling away, almost completely eliminated speeding.

Speeding is a contributing factor in approximately thirty percent of all fatal crashes in the U.S. This number has stayed steady for decades. But speeding is a problem not just in fatal crashes, but in non-fatal crashes as well, including for non-drivers. Bicyclists and pedestrians are especially vulnerable when traffic speeds increase. When a car is moving at 20 miles per hour, a pedestrian has only a five percent chance of dying when struck. That rate rises to over eighty percent when the motor vehicle speed is 40 mph.

DOTs and safety advocates have tried a wide range of techniques to get drivers to obey the speed limit. Speed sign boards and safety messages operate on the principle that knowledge of one’s speed and reminders of the speed limit beyond official signs will increase compliance. The potential for fines, no matter how remote, is implied by increased police enforcement or speed cameras. But with few exceptions, such as known “speed traps,” nothing seems to make a dent in motorists’ speeding.

Future efforts may focus on instant rewards or losses. GPS units installed in cars in research funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that the number of speeding incidences decreased dramatically when drivers lost a few pennies each time they exceeded the speed limit by five mph or more. Test subjects were given $25 at the beginning of the week-long research period, but lost three to six cents each time they went above the speed limit. By the end of the research period, compliance was close to perfect.

Hybrid drivers often experience the same instant feedback by watching their dashboard mileage monitor in real time. Many report significant changes in driving habits as they learn what behaviors improve mileage. Although most drivers have always been aware that sudden starts and stops and rapid acceleration decrease mileage, the dashboard monitor seems to have a greater impact than the abstract concept. Eco-driving technology, providing the same feedback that hybrid drivers have long received, is being offered on more cars, and has been shown to improve mileage and reduce emissions because of changes drivers make in their habits.

Insurance companies have rewarded safe driving for decades via lower premiums. However, drivers do not see the results of safe driving in real time; the lower premiums only come when the policy is renewed. Pay-as-you-drive insurance, where driver behavior and mileage are monitored via a device in the vehicle diagnostic port and policy rates are set based on driving behavior, is just beginning to become popular. Drivers can log into their accounts to view their profile, but once the diagnostic period is over and the policy rate is set, the monitoring device is no longer utilized.

Although concerns over privacy and government oversight of driving habits are common, most real-time feedback devices simply monitor driving behavior, not location via GPS. Many do not even transmit data to a third party; the data is only available to the driver or via download. As drivers become more comfortable with continuous monitoring of vehicle operations and instant feedback on their own behavior, both safety and efficiency can be expected to improve.

Robbie Webber is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.