The Art and Science of Behavior Change
Wednesdays with Woodward webinar
March 31, 2021
To recognize Distracted Driving Awareness Month in April, this session in the Wednesdays with Woodward webinar series convened thought leaders in public health communication for a look into the art and science of behavior change. Dr. Jay Winsten, Director for the Initiative on Media Strategies for Public Health at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University; Dr. Kit Delgado, Assistant Professor of Emergency & Epidemiology, Associate Director for the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics, and Director of the Behavioral Science & Analytics for Injury Reduction (BeSAFIR) Lab at the University of Pennsylvania; and Dr. Susan Kartiko, Assistant Professor of Surgery at The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences joined Travelers Institute President Joan Woodward for the discussion.
Roadway Safety During the Pandemic
Dr. Kartiko, a trauma surgeon, and Dr. Delgado, an emergency room physician, both reported seeing an increase in the severity of injuries caused by motor vehicle crashes since the start of the pandemic. With less traffic on the roads, Dr. Delgado gave one example of what might be causing this alarming increase: “We have had several documented episodes of drag races in the streets, because there was no traffic.”
The National Safety Council, a partner for the event, reported that traffic fatalities in 2020 increased 8% from 2019, even though miles driven decreased by 13%, resulting in a 24% increase in the death rate. This is in stark comparison to the 2021 Travelers Risk Index on distracted driving, which revealed that one in four drivers thinks the roads are actually safer today than they were before the pandemic.
Insights on Changing Risky Behaviors
“We know from studying behavior that people are predictably irrational and that we have constant flaws in our decision making that prevent us from doing the things that are in our best long-term interests,” said Dr. Delgado. During the discussion, panelists shared insights on messages and strategies that might help mitigate risky behaviors like distracted driving:
- Make it easier to do the right thing. Dr. Delgado emphasized that instead of telling people what not to do, frame messaging around what they should do and emphasize harm reduction. For example, his studies have shown that drivers are often unwilling to give up GPS and music apps. With that insight, he encourages drivers to set up those programs before a drive begins. He also recommends activating “Do Not Disturb While Driving” on iPhones or similar settings on other devices to block phone notifications while vehicles are in motion.
- Emphasize self-protection. According to Dr. Winsten, studies indicate that people are often more scared of other drivers’ distraction than their own. He suggests taking advantage of that preexisting fear. “Instead of saying, ‘Don’t drive distracted,’ flip it around and say, ‘Be an attentive driver in order to protect yourself from other drivers.’” This is the basis of Dr. Winsten’s public awareness campaign, Project Lookout.
- Be a proactive passenger. The 2021 Travelers Risk Index found that fewer than half (48%) of passengers speak up when the driver in a car they are riding in is distracted. The panel discussed the value of passengers speaking up and offering to assist drivers with tasks that might be distracting. “There’s just a social awkwardness about speaking up,” said Dr. Winsten. He added that getting television shows, movies and social media to model passengers speaking up would help make this behavior feel more comfortable and accepted.
- Consider timing and structure of feedback or rewards. Dr. Delgado shared two lessons from behavioral economics to promote behavior change. First, people tend to respond more to rewards that are given frequently. Second, people tend to act more on the pain of a loss than on an incentive alone. “All things being equal, if you take something away as opposed to giving something, it almost doubles the effect. So giving someone $10 feels like $10, but taking away $10 feels like you’re taking away $20,” he said, pointing to research and adding that this may help inform programs that reward drivers for reducing distraction behind the wheel.
- Trust is key. Dr. Winsten said that when conveying health and safety messages, it is critical to not only tell people what the research says but to explain it. “Listen to people’s concerns and take them seriously. Treat them with respect,” he said. “Only then do you have the possibility of them being open to changing their minds.” When picking a spokesperson to deliver a health message, he also advised picking someone who is trusted and respected by the groups you are trying to reach.
- Don’t lose sight of basic road safety. Finally, Dr. Kartiko shared practical advice to help people stay out of trauma centers. Basic measures like wearing a seat belt in a vehicle, being aware of your surroundings while you cross the street or wearing a helmet on a motorcycle or a bicycle go a long way, she said. “A lot of injuries I’ve seen in my trauma bay, including serious brain injuries, could have been avoided just by wearing a helmet.”
Learn more about distracted-driving prevention from the Travelers Institute Every Second Matters® education campaign.
Dr. Jay Winsten, Director, Initiative on Media Strategies for Public Health, T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University
Dr. Kit Delgado, Assistant Professor of Emergency & Epidemiology; Associate Director, Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics; Director, Behavioral Science & Analytics For Injury Reduction (BeSAFIR) Lab, University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Susan Kartiko, M.D., PhD, FACS, Assistant Professor of Surgery, The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences
Joan Woodward, President, Travelers Institute; Executive Vice President, Public Policy, Travelers