New report gives pointers for the future of road safety education

09.29 | 9 September 2010 | | 10 comments

In a new report published this week by the RAC Foundation, Professor Frank McKenna of the University of Reading calls for a ‘fundamental re-assessment of how road safety education is implemented and evaluated’.

In the report, ‘Education in Road Safety: Are we getting it right?’, Professor McKenna says that while road safety educational schemes are plausible, uncontroversial and address matters of public concern, evidence shows that many are ineffective. 

Professor McKenna says: “Educational interventions are often designed in the absence of theory or any formal body of evidence. In some circumstances they may inadvertently increase exposure to risk.”

He goes on to claim that there is a growing impatience at the role of education in professional circles with some arguing that educational measures serve to divert attention and resources away from other safety measures that might achieve better results. 

He says: “The one tiny inconvenient problem concerns effectiveness. 

“Having examined a broad array of public health interventions, it might be hoped that a definitive conclusion could be reached that educational interventions are unambiguously successful. The results do not support that conclusion.”

Commenting on the report, Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “It is not being said that all educational interventions fail, but rather that much more evidence needs to be collected to show which ones actually work.

“This report concludes that when it comes to road safety relying on ‘education, education, education’ is simply not enough. 

“Whilst it might tick the right boxes, far more work needs to be done to evaluate the success – or otherwise – of these projects.

“Ministers should not use this report as an excuse to cut education projects, but as a reason to demand educational schemes are of the highest standard.”

Click here to read the full RAC Foundation news release. A copy of the report can also be downloaded from this page.


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    This is and always has been the $64,000 question. ‘How Do We Evaluate Road Safety Education’? I honestly believe there is no definitive answer. All who work in the profession are well aware that education alone will not make a safer highway environment. One must couple education with robust enforcement, you can teach someone how to do things safely, within the law and with respect for their fellow road users but as soon as they see that the chances of being caught and prosecuted for their misconduct is slight, there begins the problem. As for the attitude and behaviour of our road users I am afraid it is a much larger problem of just education and enforcement there has been and is a fundamental weathering of social values in all areas and unfortunately this impacts on road safety issues.

    Alan Collins, Principal Road Safety Officer, Luton Borough Council
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    I agree with Honor – but there are difficulties. Once some-one has learned and understood, say, addition then they can apply it. However it is unlikely that there will be anyone trying to stop them applying it and, if they do get the wrong answer, there are unlikely to be life threatening consequences. Similarly students can be taught the principles of nutrition and healthy eating, have the occasional junk meal and not immediately die of coronary heart disease!
    I think we are going to struggle to prove a direct cause and effect link between RS education and casualty reduction, for the reasons you have stated – number of unknown other influences etc. However if we have a clear objective, eg to inform, which will contribute to the individual being in a position to make an informed choice, then that is probably as good as it’s going to get. Sadly free will to make the “wrong” choice will always be there – or maybe not so sadly as the alternative is unthinkable!

    Mandy Rigault. Oxfordshire
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    Road accident investigation was introduced into the Metropolitan Police in 1972. I had the privilege of attending one of the first courses to be presented in June that year. The aim of this new venture was to bring to road accidents, the principles and objectives of air accident investigation. Our text book was written by two experts in the field and is still referred to by the authors’ names, Stannard-Baker. I am told this tome now runs to two volumes. The objective was, by scientific analysis and reconstruction, to determine the causes and events that lead to a road accident and provide support to conclusions for remedial purposes. This is analogous with air accident investigation. Obviously, such work also provides evidence for any criminal or civil proceedings and is equally available to defence advocates. Again, this is so whether it is an air or road accident. It could be argued that the police is not an independent accident investigation branch but my experience is that all officers who specialised in this field were very professional and went to extremes to be impartial.

    As an aside, I am curious to know what Frank McKenna said that was previously “unsayable”.

    Roy Buchanan, Sutton.
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    Thank you Professor McKenna for saying the unsayable and throwing some light on the whole road safety issue. Road safety is not a difficult thing to get to grips with once you understand the fundamentals, but sadly very few people in the industry have even the first idea of what’s going on, let alone knowing what to do about it.

    Road safety is all about understanding crashes, no crashes, no deaths or injuries, it’s as simple as that.

    In order to understand crashes, you have to work out the complex causal net and the various human factors in play, that leads up to the crash in the first place. For some unknown reason we have never had an independent accident investigation branch that deals with road accidents, such as we do with aircraft, rail and maritime accidents. The statement from the air accidents investigation branch says it all really “To improve aviation safety by determining the causes of air accidents and serious incidents and making safety recommendations intended to prevent recurrence” …It is not to apportion blame or liability. Sadly for the road safety industry, the current method of accident investigation is structured so that blame and liability is apportioned, so that some poor soul can be suitably punished.

    We cannot teach what we do not know! If we do not know the causes of accidents, how on earth can we have an educational strategy that has a hope in hell of working?

    Duncan MacKillop, Stratford on Avon
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    A key question is “How do you define effectiveness” for a road safety education programme? Are we looking to demonstrate effectiveness by a simple reduction in road casualties for a specific year group pre and post intervention? If so, over how long a period, how do we discount the many other variables in collision causation and effect? And how do we track and report on them in practical terms? Or do we set short to medium term aims and outcomes that demonstrate increased knowledge or skills and link that to an overall reduction in individual risk over a future period of time? Over how long? How do we track and measure individuals over time to show this?
    I think we need to be able to demonstrate that RS education works but we should first be looking at how other education outcomes are measured – for example; the need for teaching maths to children does not have to be justified, only how it is taught and to what level. There is an acceptance in society that people need to be able to accomplish basic maths and arithmetic as part of their general education in order to access services, be employable, add up their change etc. Shouldn’t we also be working to obtain that general acceptance for the principle that children/young people require a basic level of training/knowledge in order to be able to use the highways network safely? This should then be part of the general curriculum at each key stage with support and updating to reassess what to teach and how to teach it on a regular basis. Comparisons with engineering measures are inappropriate as they measure easily measurable things at a single site or route, not the behaviours of the individuals who use it.But comparisons with other subjects taught are directly relevant and for RS education within schools, this should be the route for adoption of RS education in principle and then to develop the curriculum and assessment methodology.
    From that basis, we can develop how to apporach ETP interventions with adult road users, based on their basic RS education received and then on the data that shows where further interventions are required e.g. to address distractions, seatbelt use, and so on, as identified as the most significant causations.

    Honor Byford, North Yorkshire
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    This report is to be welcomed, generally speaking. However, there are comments quoted in the news item that need to be expanded if they are to be of value. Professor McKenna states that many road safety educational schemes are “ineffective”. We need to look closely at the evidence used to support that conclusion. A further claim by McKenna is that “educational interventions are often designed in the absence of theory or any formal body of evidence”. Again, this comment needs expansion to prove its worth. The claim that “in some circumstances” educational interventions may “inadvertently increase exposure to risk” is an odd comment that demands dialogue but, to be just, an explanation may be in the full report. Professor McKenna’s comment that his examination of public health interventions suggests to him that “definitive conclusions” are hoped to be “unambiguously successful” is another strange comment, though possibly true, so clarification is needed. In contrast, the comment by Professor Stephen Glaister is succinct and a very useful summary. May I propose that we approach this report with prudence but, based on the quotes provided here, I would be very circumspect because my fear is that it is not going to tell practitioners anything they don’t know already. On the other hand, if it can be used to refine and promote road safety education, particularly in the corridors of power, then McKenna may not have wasted his time.

    Roy Buchanan. Sutton
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    I think this highlights the need to set clear objectives before embarking on what seems like a good idea. As Robert says the ETP evaluation tool kit will be immensely helpful – but only we if we know what we are trying to measure!

    Mandy Rigault, Oxfordshire
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    I deliver a variety of road safety programmes in central London to children AND adults. The children are aged between 5 and 15. The adults range from 18 to 60 and are just ordinary people who want to learn to cycle properly on road. You bring up an excellent point about evaluating results. I’m convinced our programmes do enhance road safety but would be interested on discussing how we could effectively evaluate.

    Philippa Robb central London
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    It’s excellent. This message is from Bogotá- Colombia and I’m working with the local government in road safety. It explains clearly our difficulties and also our challenge evaluating. Thank you. We don´t have the experience you have and I hope we can learn from you.

    Isabel Rodriguez, Road Safety, Bogotá – Secretaría de Movilidad
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    A welcome and very timely report. All of us who put time, money and effort into developing and delivering road safety ETP initiatives will want to know whether what we are doing works! As will the people who are funding what we do – especially in the present economic climate. The soon to be launched DfT/RoSPA ETP evaluation toolkit will go a long way to helping us address this.

    Robert Smith, Road Safety Manager, Dorset County Council
    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

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