The What, Why and How of Positive Strokes

FellowConnect-Nov2014

An article by Anusha Jaishankar in Ashoka’s Fellow Connect magazine talks about the role of behavior in road safety and how Positive Strokes works towards improving road users’ behavior.  See FellowConnectAsia-RoleOfBehavior, read the magazine online or read on right here …

The role of ‘behavior’ in road safety

Road accidents are a leading cause of preventable death and disability worldwide. They are the single largest public health issue, reaching epidemic levels among children and youth in developing nations such as India.

The current scenario

Studies and reports on road safety by the Government of India[1] focus largely on planning engineering improvements to road infrastructure, improvements in public mobility options, use of technology in data collection and centralization of vehicle data and crash data, improvements in vehicle safety, enforcement and emergency response.

Interestingly, European studies on road safety typically include ‘Behavior’ as an important factor in achieving safe roads. Indian road safety experts have indeed acknowledged the role of behavior in road safety[2] but there are no significant efforts to effect such behavior change. At best, the idea of training and raising awareness is given some support.

India signed its support for the UN Decade of Action for Road Safety with a charter to reduce road deaths by 50% during this decade (2011-2020).  To this end, there have been targeted drives to improve helmet and seatbelt usage, reduce incidents of driving under the influence of alcohol etc., and these have met with varied levels of success. However, these efforts do not address a major traffic issue caused by indiscipline and lack of knowledge (or non-adherence) of the chaos created by this indiscipline. The result of this behavior is a traffic scenario that is extremely dynamic, unpredictable and quite dangerous.

This indiscipline is a direct result of the culture on the roads. People tend to follow the prevalent culture. For example, in India, it is quite common to see people crowding around a service counter instead of forming a queue and waiting to be served. Similarly, road users often ignore posted speed limits and road signs prohibiting a turn etc., and instead follow the lead of other vehicles in the vicinity.

With a large number of drivers including young newcomers imitating existing road behavior, there is little chance for large-scale change unless there is some intervention to improve attitudes and behavior among current road users, using ways that go beyond classroom training and book-based learning.

The correlation between behavior change and accident reduction may not be direct, but is implicit. There may not (yet) be evidence of reduction in the number of accidents by improving road user behavior; but, intuitively it is clear that when a majority of road users follow expected behavior, it will help to reduce accidents, make driving less stressful, safer and maybe even a pleasant experience!

Reinforcement of good behavior

From time immemorial, penalization has been used with the expectation that mistakes can be rectified. By its very definition, punishment can only be exacted after a rule has been broken. This requires immense levels of monitoring. Such enforcement is humanly impossible to scale up when the disparity between the number of enforcers and enforced is massive and ever growing. For example, in Bangalore there is one traffic policeman for approximately every 3500 people, each attempting to monitor a multitude of rules.

Positive reinforcement is a proactive method that has the advantage of engaging an individual early on. Unlike punishment, which could have detrimental effects, positive reinforcement is capable of producing long-term positive effects. By acknowledging a good behavior, not only is that behavior strengthened, but this also makes one become self aware and self-monitoring. These empowered individuals become agents of positive change themselves, thereby making the problem of enforcement a much more manageable issue.

Just as positive reinforcement can be used to mold a child’s behavior and a corporate employee can be incentivized to perform better in a meritocracy, positive reinforcement can be employed to maintain and improve road behavior. Positive reinforcement works across social strata, age and geography.

Initially tangible rewards may be required to reinforce good behavior. Eventually, the reduction of the factors causing bad behavior could itself become the reward.

In the case of traffic, when most road users follow a certain road discipline, newcomers are more likely to follow suit. This will also set the stage for introducing new rules with a reasonable expectation that rules will be followed.

Positive Strokes

The Positive Strokes program is based on this tendency of newcomers to follow the lead of existing road users. The aim of Positive Strokes is to nudge each individual into becoming more aware of their own safety and the safety of other road users.

The novelty of the program lies in the fact that volunteers can watch vehicle movement in the city through live streaming feed into the Traffic Management Centre (TMC) from cameras located at over 175 traffic junctions in Bangalore. Watching this from the comfort and safety of the TMC gives one a different perspective of traffic than if one were present on the road. Often, volunteers come away with a greater understanding of the issues playing out on the roads and the challenges that our enforcement mechanisms have to grapple with. Many of them realize that there are simple behavioral changes they can make to become safer road users.

All good road users identified by volunteers, have their traffic violation record scrutinized by the traffic police. Those who have a violation free record for a certain period of time are awarded a vehicle sticker and a letter of commendation from the chief of Bangalore Traffic Police. The prominently displayed sticker lets one know that their good behavior has been noticed and encourages continued good behavior. It also serves as a motivator for others on the road.

In addition, this marks a minor but important shift in the perception of the traffic department from an enforcer to an authority that is cognizant and appreciative of those people who are disciplined on the road. This bridge between the traffic department and the common man marks the beginning of an important partnership.

Positive Strokes encompasses elements of training, awareness building and positive reinforcement towards the greater goal of behavior and attitudinal change.

Without a radical change in the behavior and attitude of road users, the best of infrastructure will still be misused and the most stringent enforcement will still fall short.

Behavior change is not immediate and may not be measurable in the short term. Even so, it is important for organizations and institutions working in road safety to acknowledge the role of behavior and attitude among road users, to develop ways to address this issue and to find ways to track progress.

~By Anusha Jaishankar (Oct 21, 2014)

[1] Planning Commission – 12th Year Plan http://planningcommission.gov.in/plans/planrel/12thplan/pdf/12fyp_vol2.pdf

and National Road Safety Policy by Ministry of Road Transport and Highways http://morth.nic.in/showfile.asp?lid=388

[2] WHO Collaborating Centre for Injury Prevention and Safety Promotion at NIMHANS: http://www.nimhans.kar.nic.in/epidemiology/bisp/edu1.pdf

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