Georgia: Monitoring Project Raises Hopes for Improved Highway Safety
Auto safety is a perennial issue across Eurasia, as the generally poor condition of highways and byways, the proliferation of haphazardly maintained vehicles and a proclivity for reckless driving mean that death is a constant part of life on the road.
Among the most hazardous forms of public transportation are the ubiquitous communal minibuses known as marshrutkas, which ferry passengers around and between cities and towns. Marshrutkas are a mixture of taxi and public bus, and, for passengers, make up in convenience what they lack in comfort. But there is also a significant risk involved in using marshrutkas because many are old and in need of repair, and they are operated by overworked, stressed-out and distracted drivers.
But there is good news for marshrutka users: an experimental project conducted in Georgia suggests that a cost-efficient monitoring program could significantly increase rider safety.
The monitoring format, developed by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers-Georgia, underwent a month-long test, starting last September 20. CRRC recruited paid observers to ride on marshrutkas and monitor the driving behavior of operators. Monitors tracked marshrutka trips in three phases. In the first, they recorded whether a group of drivers engaged in dangerous driving behaviors, including passing in places where it was illegal, and distracted driving behaviors like smoking and talking on a cell phone. This contingent formed the trial’s control group.
For the second phase, monitors followed a different group of drivers, who were told in advance that they were being observed and that if they were judged the safest driver in the survey, they would receive a fuel voucher. The drivers in the second group were also told that an anonymous monitor would at some point in the near future come back to observe their road behaviors.
The last step involved monitors returning to both the control and treatment groups unannounced to observe driving.
By comparing the results of the first phase to the second, it was possible to determine the effect of overt observation on driving patterns. Evaluating participants in the second phase to the same minibuses in the third provided insight into whether those who knew they were monitored, and were told they would be monitored again, maintained safer driving practices. Lastly, by comparing the first-phase drivers to their third-phase performances, it was possible to test for the consistency of driving behaviors by the control group.
The results of the trial indicated that a small, anonymous monitoring program could be effective in improving driver practices. While in the first round of observation, 96 percent of drivers engaged in some form of dangerous driving, among those in the second group, who were told in advance that they were being monitored, the number was 70 percent. And while 79 percent of drivers made illegal passes in first phase, 43 percent from the second group engaged in such behavior.
In the third phase, carried out several weeks after the first two phases, drivers from the second group still engaged in 14 percent fewer dangerous driving behaviors than those from the first group who had not been told in advance that they were being observed.
CRRC-Georgia’s project involved the monitoring of 360 inter-city minibus trips in a randomized control trial (RCT). RCTs are considered the gold standard in social science because they provide firm evidence of cause and effect through randomly giving a treatment to some individuals, and not others and then comparing outcomes.
While the marshrutka safety experiment raises hopes that a monitoring program could encourage changed behaviors, the evidence is not definitive. The experiment did not take weather into account, a factor that can potentially alter driving patterns. It also could not measure precisely for the possibility of contamination of the source pool, i.e. drivers who had been observed later talking about the project with colleagues, and encouraging other drivers to be more careful behind the wheel.
While the experiment was carried out in Georgia, there is no particular reason to suspect that such a policy would not work in other areas and contexts.
Monitoring projects could be conducted either by non-governmental organizations or by municipal government agencies. A government-run project would likely stand a better chance of improving safety, as drivers could be fined for hazardous driving, as well as rewarded for safe driving. This policy would likely have a greater impact since social scientists have repeatedly shown that individuals strive to avoid losses much more intensively than they seek out gains.