OPINION3 August 2011

Slow down! You move too fast


Attempts to curb speeding on the roads usually involve a mix of scary messages and the threat of fines or driving bans. But behavioural economics is starting to be applied to this social issue in creative ways, says Crawford Hollingworth.

A brilliant example from the inspirational www.funtheory.com is the speed camera lottery. If you keep within the speed limit you are caught on camera and automatically entered into a lottery to win a prize. This (in BE terms) is a classic piece of reframing: from a negative and punitive stance to a positive one – offering a reward for those who obey the rules.

Slightly more practical is the Smiley SID (Speed Indication Display) which is a traffic calming sign designed to use social norms on drivers to reduce their speed. A smiley SID rewards drivers when they obey the speed limit, while a sad SID tells them they’re going too fast. Developed as more of a gentle reminder and a non aggressive means of speed limit enforcement, SIDs are seen as the “friendly” face of community and site speed education. They have been found to be effective particularly in low-speed areas, which tend to be residential.


We are sure they work more effectively for some people than others. Another really interesting finding related to the BE norming effect – where the conscious new becomes the subconscious old – is that the SIDs are more effective in short bursts of two to three weeks, after that time they should be moved to a new location.

As an aside, smiley faces have also been used in the Netherlands, Germany and Austria to try to improve the otherwise frustrating experience of being stuck in slow traffic caused by road works. In those countries you might encounter roadside signs at different intervals with different smiley faces. The signs show a progressively happier face as you near the end of the road works. For those unfamiliar with Dutch, “nog” means “still” or “more.”


Back to speed control, and looking East we find musical roads. Most of us will be familiar with rumble strips which vibrate as cars drive over them. Musical or ‘melody roads’ take this idea one step further by creating a series of grooves, cut at very specific intervals in the surface of the asphalt to produce different notes. These create tunes that can be heard in the car, but for optimum effect the tune is best heard when the car is travelling at a certain speed.


Japan (and the US) have built roads like this mainly for fun, but the South Koreans have used this idea to encourage adherence to the speed limit. Around 68% of highway accidents in South Korea are caused by inattentive, sleeping or speeding drivers, so the Korean Highway Corporation and the Hokkaido Industrial Research Institute in Japan have developed musical road surfaces to the tune of “Mary had a Little Lamb” to help motorists stay alert and keep to the speed limit.

Seung-Hwan Shin, manager of the Korean Highway Corp, noted the high frequency of accidents due to dozing and speeding on one highway where there is a notorious downhill, S-bend. The optimal speed for listening to these songs from the road is a safe 62 mph. At faster speeds, motorists still hear the music but it is an annoying speeded-up, high-pitch version. This is all about breaking people out of their autopilot and making them focus on the now. Assuming the lullaby doesn’t send them to sleep, of course.

A final brilliant attempt to correct modern bad habits with behavioural economics is the video campaign that challenges Formula One team Williams’ test driver Valterri Bottas to text and drive. The video shows Valterri driving in a simulator where his team are closely monitoring his reaction times. When he begins texting, it doesn’t take long before it’s ‘game over’ and his ‘car’ slams against a wall. A very convincing use of authority bias.


It can wait – don’t text and drive

Crawford Hollingworth is a founder of The Behavioural Architects