The Need to Use Research When Promoting Road Safety

It is both a sad and dangerous fact that the majority of people who use roads — and who doesn’t? — very mistakenly assume that they know a lot about road safety.  However, taken overall, it is a very complex subject about which only a very few top experts even come close to knowing it ‘all’.

The wreckage from the crash that cost James Dean his life. Ironically, this was just after he had made some PSA announcements for the National Safety Council about highway safety.  (Wikimedia Commons)

Indeed, even people who work in specialised aspects of road safety, such as individuals in the fundamental “Three E’s” — the Engineers, the Enforcers, and the Educators — commonly believe they know far more about the overall subject than they actually do.

To support this assertion, anecdotally at least, I would add that my own initial profession in this field was as a traffic patrol police officer, a group of people who far too frequently see the terrible outcomes of crashes and then get to investigate the cause.

Extreme conspicuity for law enforcement vehicles helps in road safety overall, not just at crash scenes.  (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The problem is that, in the law enforcement field, our ‘front-line’ experience, coupled with various degrees of crash investigation, led us to believe that we were the ‘true experts’ in the subject and that because we ‘ticketed’ or arrested bad drivers we were also the main factor in crash prevention.  However, we went further in our truly arrogant beliefs:  To us, the academics in this subject were just people in ivory towers, guilty of proving the spurious merit in that frankly stupid old saying about “lies, damned lies, and statistics!”

If you are now yelling at your screen because I have dared to challenge that inevitable and frankly mindless response everyone uses when they don’t like the implications of any particular statistic, ask yourself that if your partner, or your sibling, or you child were to be critically ill and need major surgery:

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
  • Would you like the surgery to be performed by a doctor who has done the procedure say 300 times, with a national highest success rate of 98 percent, or would you be happy for an underqualified, unsupervised person to do it who has only performed the operation six times and lost three of the patients?
  • After the surgery, would you want the hospital to use the most proven drugs which again have a huge success rate to help with recovery, or would you mind them using a new drug that a few people merely believe will be at least as good?

Stupid questions?  No, not really, because there you have a perfectly good, if very simplified version of what statistics are, and the situation is no different in traffic safety research.   It is simply well-informed number-crunching that allows experts to work out which approaches work best and which ones — even if seemingly intuitive — do not work as well or have even been proved to be harmful.

To put it very bluntly but also very accurately, in both medicine and in road safety a lot of the figures are effectively body counts, and there is not much room to argue with those.

Now, at the other extreme, there is also bad attitude on the part of some researchers, too — after all it is a human failing for anyone to think that they are “the most important cog in the wheel.”

One experienced traffic safety PhD guy I was talking to about driver safety made the assertion that driver training was never beneficial, and to illustrate this he gave the example that he had been on a one-day defensive driving course which (quote) he did not want to attend, and that on his way home, after the event, he (again quote) had a “speed-related incident.”

What I dare to suggest his comments substantiated was that a good attitude is critical to being a safe driver but that his own attitude was actually the weak link.  He was an academic PhD rather than medical but I believe he was a classic candidate for the old expression:  “Physician, heal thyself!”

I would, however, be so bold as to suggest that a far higher proportion of road safety academics are accurate than are those of us who work in the other disciplines.  Indeed, it is the very nature of their work that they should be exceedingly accurate.

But to this day there are still two major flaws in the machine, namely:

Shifting program and policy development away from a ‘shoot from the hip’ commonsense based orientation to a theoretically grounded approach is not an easy assignment.  Scholars and researchers in the social and behavioral science fields have not done a good job of translating their fundamental understanding — which, though less than perfect, is substantial — into usable guidelines for practitioners… The unfortunate, but not surprising, result is that those who develop programs, policies, and laws rarely know there is a substantial knowledge base upon which they might draw…” [1]

Secondly:  “… research is not always easily available to the public, and communicating knowledge from research institutions in ways that are clear and comprehensible can be challenging…”[2]  There is also the issue of cost.  The paper from which this excerpt is drawn refers to an extremely well-known book regarding the effects of 148 road safety measures, but that book is offered for sale at prices up to US $350.

It cannot go unmentioned that here in the USA — which sadly has a comparatively poor record in terms of road safety — far too much of what is taught or told to drivers, whether by government departments [e.g. 3], major automotive corporations, driving instructors, or even people who have lost loved ones and who — with the best will in the world — are campaigning for greater safety on America’s roads, comes into the highly undesirable category referred to above by Professor Foss as “a shoot from the hip, commonsense based” approach that can often do more harm than good.

Correcting the all-too-common bad advice is a field in which we have been working for almost 20 years and in which Road Safety USA will continue to strive to make a beneficial difference.


  1. Foss, R;  ‘Addressing behavioral elements in traffic safety: A recommended approach.’  Published in ‘Improving Traffic Safety Culture in the United States – The Journey Forward,’  AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, Washington, DC.
  2. Berge, S.H.; Talk about traffic safety An investigation of chatbot technology as a communication tool; TOI, 2020
  3. Wren, E; State Drivers’ Manuals Can Kill Your Kids!; Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress, Detroit, 2007.

Eddie Wren’s own background in the practical aspects of traffic safety stretch over 46 years and may even be unmatched by other practitioners.


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