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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

When it comes to seatbelt use, some people need a nudge

Knowing the risks isn't enough to make people break bad habits, but using the right behavioural techniques can bring about lasting change

According to a recent survey, only 27 per cent of people in the UAE buckle up in rear seats. Pawan Singh / The National
According to a recent survey, only 27 per cent of people in the UAE buckle up in rear seats. Pawan Singh / The National

Last year, the Fédération International de l’Automobile (FIA) and the advertising company JCDecaux launched the first-ever worldwide outdoor road-safety advertising campaign. Referring to the number of people who lose their lives every day around the world in preventable road accidents, it was named #3500lives. Studies have repeatedly shown that wearing a seatbelt at the time of a traffic accident can reduce the risk of death by as much as 45 per cent.

Despite these well-known and undisputed statistics, seatbelt use is still not a default behavior for many drivers and passengers around the world.

The reasons why people refuse to buckle up range from the mistaken belief that airbags offer sufficient protection, to the plainly ludicrous idea that safe drivers don’t need to take precautions. Some even see this matter as a question of civil liberties, arguing that they are free to what to do what they want with their own lives. The problem with this view is that not buckling up can have a dramatic effect on others: the risk to people in the fronts seats is significantly higher if passengers behind them are not strapped in.

Laws enforcing both front and rear seatbelt use have been adopted in 105 countries, theoretically affecting 4.8 billion drivers and passengers, according to the FIA. The International Transport Forum’s Road Safety Annual Report 2018, meanwhile, indicates huge differences between countries when it comes to seatbelt wearing rates.

France and Japan, both at 99 per cent, lead the world in front seatbelt use. But countries such as Mexico, where only half of people buckle up, and Cambodia and India, at around a quarter, lag way behind. Germany, at 97 per cent, and Norway, at 96 per cent, top the list for rear seatbelt use, while countries such Serbia and Italy exhibit rates as low as 12 per cent and 11 per cent, respectively.

In the UAE, where one in five drivers has had an accident in the past six months, compulsory seatbelt use was made law last year. However, a recent study shows that fewer than a third of adults are aware of the dangers of not strapping in, and that only 27 per cent buckle up in rear seats.

So, how do we increase seatbelt use? Information and road-safety campaigns are necessary, but rarely sufficient to change behavior. This is because being aware of a risk is not enough for people to change their behavior. As I have said several times before, if this were the case, not a single doctor or nurse would smoke.

But habits can change significantly over time. According to the United States’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, back in 1981, only 11 per cent of drivers in states with strict seatbelt laws opted to buckle up. Thanks to technology, education and law enforcement, this figure had risen to 85 per cent by 2010. By 2017, it had climbed to 91 per cent.

Many governments have realised that information campaigns and law enforcement are not enough. Now, they are working with experts in behavior change, designing so-called “nudges” – positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions that influence human behaviour – to improve road safety.

In France, the MAIF Insurance Foundation and the behavioural consultancy group BVA Nudge Unit designed and tested measures to entice people between the ages of 11 and 19 to buckle up in school buses. One nudge consisted of ensuring that all seatbelts were buckled before passengers entered the bus. This made the belt visible and meant that it had to be unbuckled before anyone could take a seat. Another made use of seat covers showing characters wearing their seatbelts. These simple cues resulted in seatbelt use rising from 10 per cent to almost 24 per cent.

Another simple and efficient behavioural strategy was designed and implemented by Nudge Lebanon, using hotel parking valets as messengers. The scientists asked valet parking attendants to prompt drivers on the way back to their cars to buckle up.

The results indicate that 77.5 per cent of drivers and 46 per cent of passengers followed the prompt and wore their seatbelt. This represents a significant increase from the control group, whose members received no prompt. Of them, only 42.4 per cent of drivers and 20 per cent of passengers fastened their seatbelts.

On Christmas Eve last year, I had a car accident. I was wearing my seatbelt. I was still hurt. The seatbelt dug into me on impact and caused me considerable chest pain for some time after. Without it, though, I would probably not be here to write this column today.

Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ