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August 10, 2021Episode 14. What We Think, We Become: How traffic safety knowledge influences driver behavior.
FEATURING: Katie Womack
Whatever occupies our thoughts can influence our performance on the road. In this episode, Senior Research Scientist Katie Womack takes a close look at our awareness of traffic laws and safety messages over the past decade, and how that knowledge can shape our driving behavior.
About Our Guest
Senior Research Scientist
Katie Womack is a senior research scientist and manager of TTI’s Behavioral Research Program. She has been involved in traffic safety research for 35 years at TTI. She studies people in their driving environment on Texas roadways and regularly conducts surveys to reveal their thoughts on a variety of traffic safety issues.
Bernie Fette (host) (00:15):
Welcome to Thinking Transportation — conversations about how we get ourselves and our stuff from one place to another, and what it takes to make that happen. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.
Bernie Fette (00:32):
How we drive depends a lot on how we think. How well we understand traffic laws, what we consider to be safe or risky, and just the routine matters that occupy our daily mental activity. Altogether, these influence our every move when we get behind the wheel. It helps to understand all we can about those thoughts and actions and how they might change over time. That’s one focus of the work that Katie Womack does for TTI. She’s our guest for this episode, and she’s here to help us make sense of what Texas drivers are thinking and how that might affect what they’re doing. Thanks for sharing your time with us, Katie.
Katie Womack (guest) (01:14):
Bernie Fette (01:15):
I know that you’ve been studying human driver behavior for quite a few years, and doing this study now for 10 years. So can you just start by telling us briefly what you’re doing with this particular survey and why?
Katie Womack (01:39):
We have a focus in Texas, as well as other states do, on behaviors that put passengers and drivers in motor vehicles at risk and especially during heavy travel periods, like during the summer or during holiday periods. And so, even though there are traffic safety programs that go on throughout the year, we sometimes ratchet up those programs to get people’s attention. And so this is the case where things like Click It or Ticket and Distracted Driving Awareness Month and Child Passenger Safety Month. And so what this study is doing is taking a cross-sectional look across time, a repeated cross-sectional survey, and it’s funded by the Texas Department of Transportation, to get a snapshot in time and compare that from year to year. So this is the Traffic Safety Attitudes and Awareness Survey. We began it in 2010 and we repeat it annually. And with this survey, we’ve been able to measure changes over time for a few variables that are of interest to, us and TxDOT.
Bernie Fette (02:54):
So it sounds like there’s a couple of ways to look at the findings here. One is to look at how our year of the pandemic compared with the year before and another is to examine more broadly across the entire 10 years. And I’m hoping we can do both, starting with you can talk about that COVID effect on our driving environment and behaviors and such?
Katie Womack (03:15):
Yes, of course. This year was particularly interesting because of the dramatic changes in the traffic environment. These changes were associated with the pandemic, that there were so many elements that were affected, not just the traffic on the roadways, but also the enforcement focus, the priorities, the way enforcement occurred, and then not to mention the safety outreach and the program efforts that were affected or curtailed in fact, by the pandemic.
Bernie Fette (03:46):
And when you say programs, you’re talking a lot of that is, is the advertising we see on billboards and radio and TV messages?
Katie Womack (03:54):
I am talking about that, but I’m also talking about the many outreach efforts that have to do with education and, you know, the spread of the safety messages in person.
Bernie Fette (04:05):
Katie Womack (04:05):
That, of course, also had to be curtailed. Many of the traffic safety program efforts are in person with groups, educational activities, teaching moments, all of those kinds of outreach activities. So we had 10 years of prior data from 2010 to 2019, and then we have this exceptional 2020 to look at.
Bernie Fette (04:30):
What, if anything, in that one-year comparison surprised you? Did you have any moments of, wow, I didn’t see that coming?
Katie Womack (04:38):
You know what, I need to preface this by talking about how the survey itself changed. Because one big thing that changed for us was also impacted by the pandemic, which was how we did the survey. In those 10 years prior, we were doing that survey in a person-to-person setting. So we would ask folks who were waiting for service at the driver license office, if they would take a few moments to do a pen and paper survey. It’s a short survey. And most of the time people were very willing to do it for us. And this happened all across the state. Well, of course, with the pandemic, we weren’t able to take that approach. First, because the DL offices were not even open to the public. And secondly, we weren’t able to hand people paper or anything and get close to them and ask them to do a survey for us.
Bernie Fette (05:34):
Katie Womack (05:34):
So the long and the short of it was that we ended up converting to an online survey. And so our sample, the way we got our sample, is completely different from walking up to people and asking them. So these folks who answered in 2020 self-selected in. They were a panel of folks from across the state throughout all the regions of the state. We did survey the same number of respondents, but it’s a bit of a different cross-section. And so that was one thing that changed for us was this broader representativeness.
Bernie Fette (06:10):
Give us a sense of what sort of major distinctions, major changes that are highlights that you saw from that 2019 to 2020 comparison, in terms of the awareness and behaviors that you were measuring.
Katie Womack (06:23):
You had asked me earlier, if I was surprised by anything. One of the things that was somewhat reassuring was that the changes weren’t as dramatic as we might have been fearful of. You know, if we saw some really odd changes in what people were reporting, we would be asking ourselves if the sample was completely different from our past 10 years of samples, that we see some similar trends, some consistency, and some comparability. The things that we did notice that changed, we’ll have to have another year of doing it in this online way to see, you know, how consistent those patterns stay, using this method.
Bernie Fette (07:08):
I understand what you said about the lack of significant change is giving you some reassurance that the change in methodology did not throw your findings off. But what I’m wondering is, is there anything noteworthy in terms of awareness changes, behavior changes from 2019 to 2020, that could have been pandemic related?
Katie Womack (07:31):
One thing that was not surprising at all was the awareness of enforcement. So, as I mentioned earlier, we tend to do these surveys around periods of increased activity, whether that’s media messaging, or enforcement or outreach. And so what we like to do is get a measurement of how successful those are in reaching the public. Well, in 2020, we found a dip in the percentage of people who said that they were aware of some increased enforcement, and that is not surprising at all because in fact campaigns like Click It or Ticket were not conducted at the usual time in 2020. That May mobilization that usually occurs around Memorial Day was shifted to the fall. So when people said, “No, I haven’t really heard about any Click It or Ticket or increased enforcement in the last few months,” they were right on target.
Bernie Fette (08:34):
There was a good reason for that because it wasn’t happening.
Katie Womack (08:38):
Yeah. And that’s not to say that enforcement wasn’t happening and that, you know, some messages, but as far as the statewide and the national mobilization.
Bernie Fette (08:47):
Yeah, the emphasis wasn’t there, or it was lessened in comparison.
Katie Womack (08:51):
Yeah. And one thing that was interesting, that kind of again, was reassuring, was a part of that question. A follow-up is, have you heard about enforcement within the past year? And that percentage was really consistent from 2019 to 2020. So the message was still there. The people in Texas had heard it in the past and recalled it.
Bernie Fette (09:16):
Other states do this kind of survey too, don’t they?
Katie Womack (09:19):
Yes. There are many other states who do attitude and awareness surveys from year to year.
Bernie Fette (09:24):
And because of the guidelines that you’re given by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there is some consistency from one state to another in terms of how those surveys are put together, right?
Katie Womack (09:36):
Yes. There are some core questions that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration likes to keep consistent from state to state, so that there is the ability to put those together and also make comparisons.
Bernie Fette (09:50):
You said comparisons, which is exactly where I was going. I was wondering if we have any idea of how Texas compares with other states, especially in these four areas that are common in the survey from one state to another.
Katie Womack (10:03):
Well, I can’t really drill down and to, you know, our data versus other states’ data in this kind of this format, exactly. I sound like Texas bragging here, but we’re fortunate to have a very high seatbelt use rate.
Bernie Fette (10:17):
Katie Womack (10:17):
And a high awareness of the seatbelt mandate and pretty high perception of enforcement. And I think that compares favorably with other states, particularly where the rates are lower. You can see that it tracks pretty well between what people perceive as enforcement and the likelihood of getting a citation if you’re not wearing a seatbelt, or if you drive impaired or if you’re speeding. Those kinds of things show up in a state where, you know, the behaviors are on the high side or the compliance side compared to states where they have a little more work to do.
Bernie Fette (10:58):
I’m glad that you brought up the seatbelt thing because you mentioned bragging about Texas, but it’s really not bragging if it’s true. And I say that because the seatbelt use level is at what, 98 percent?
Katie Womack (11:11):
Oh, that’s the self-reported on this survey. Now, when you ask people to tell how often they either always, or almost always wear their seatbelt, that’s where we get the 98 percent. And that has been relatively constant over the 10, now 11 years, that we’ve been doing the survey.
Bernie Fette (11:32):
How does that number compare with your observational studies?
Katie Womack (11:37):
Our observational surveys indicate that the use rate in Texas is closer to 90 percent.
Bernie Fette (11:44):
Katie Womack (11:44):
So those who say almost always must be the ones that we’re seeing out there that maybe not to be wearing their belt when we see them.
Bernie Fette (11:56):
And I think there’s an interesting question there, is why the disparity between the 98 percent plus who say that they always or almost always wear it, but in reality, the number is closer to 90 percent.
Katie Womack (12:09):
Well, a couple of things can contribute to that. One is, we’re looking at the driver and the front seat passenger when we do our surveys where we get the 90 percent. And so not all of them are over 18, which are all of our survey respondents had to be adults.
Bernie Fette (12:28):
Katie Womack (12:28):
So we get some passengers that kind of contribute to the overall rate. And we’re asking them when they drive, how often they wear their seatbelt. Another thing is that people tend to kind of over self-report and that’s true for almost any kind of behavior that’s socially acceptable or unacceptable. And so what you do is you kind of account for that by looking at it from year to year and, and recognizing that you’re going to have a little bit of, I would say, padding in there for the over-reporting.
Bernie Fette (13:04):
Okay. Let’s step back if we can, and take a little bit more expansive look at things at that 10-year period. In what areas have you noticed the biggest changes over the past decade?
Katie Womack (13:17):
Well, you know, the shifts have been subtle. But generally a healthy majority do hear and recognize the don’t drink and drive messages. So, at least three-quarters of the sample every year say they’re aware of the stepped-up efforts, especially during the summer to curb impaired driving. And they do believe that there’s a likelihood that if they drink and drive, that they could get pulled over. So, we did see this past year though, a little bit of a dip in that. There was this shift in the perception of the DWI enforcement in 2020. Let me just say that in 2019, 11 percent of our survey sample said that they had not heard of any kind of increased enforcement of DWI, but in 2020, the percent who said they hadn’t heard of it was 21 percent and that’s a pretty dramatic shift.
Bernie Fette (14:21):
What does that tell you?
Katie Womack (14:23):
I think that it goes back to across those three major traffic safety concerns — the speeding, seatbelt, and impaired driving — that there was a decreased level of awareness of enforcement. And that’s because partly those major campaigns that the shift, the shift in the emphasis. I’m not saying that they didn’t still enforce the traffic laws, but there were other things that were competing for the attention of the Texas public at the time, in terms of what was happening on the roadways. And with regard to enforcement of the usual traffic safety campaigns that are going on in the summer. And we remember people were staying at home, there was the stay-at-home mandate about the time that this survey was going on. So when they said they weren’t sure, or they weren’t aware, there were competing things going on.
Bernie Fette (15:25):
And that goes back to some of those distinctions you mentioned about the shift from 2019 to the pandemic year. What are some of the other areas where things stood out for you in looking at a 10-year trend?
Katie Womack (15:38):
Well, I want to point out that a common practice in Texas and elsewhere is speeding. And in our survey, this is phrased as you know, how often do you go over 15 miles an hour over the speed limit? And this is admitted to, by almost half of the respondents each year. In other words, less than half say they never speed by more than 15 miles an hour over the speed limit. So we have other questions that put it a little bit more focused. For example, on a local road that’s 30 miles an hour speed limit, how often do you go 35 on it? And this one has been around 9 percent from year to year throughout the 11-year period. So on a higher-speed road, one that’s 70 miles an hour, the question would be, how often do you go 75? And most of the time, well, starting in 2010, that percentage was 7 percent who said that they regularly go over 75. Now that has crept up over the years, starting in 2010, like I said, it started at 7 percent. In 2018 it was 10 percent. In 2020, it was 11 percent. Now that may not sound like very much, but if you look at over a 11-year period going from 7 percent to 11 percent who say that they regularly speed, that’s something to pay attention to, I believe.
Bernie Fette (17:14):
And that was for the higher-speed roadways. Was the same thing true for neighborhood streets where speed limits are typically around 30 miles an hour? I mean, did the high-speed speeders and the lower-speed speeders both increase over that period?
Katie Womack (17:28):
No, not to the same extent. On, on the lower-speed roadways, it’s remained fairly constant at around 9 percent. Another thing that I really wanted to talk about was the common practice reported every year is cell phone use. And this is something that we’ve been tracking, both the self-reported use and the awareness of the laws regarding cell phone use. This is the most common traffic safety risk behavior that people say they do relative to the others that we survey about.
Bernie Fette (18:02):
Has that behavior increased over that 10-year period then?
Katie Womack (18:06):
Well, it’s been consistently higher than all the others, but what I want to point out is that both cell phone use for talking, using your cell phone and self-reported texting were down in 2020. This was a pretty dramatic, and I would say surprising, finding. So this may mark the beginning of the change in this behavior. Again, we’ll need to see what happens in 2021 to know if it was sample-related, pandemic-related, or if maybe, you know, there’s a shift in the cell phone use and texting behavior.
Bernie Fette (18:43):
I know that this wasn’t part of the study that we’re talking about, but you also measure compliance with laws concerning seatbelts. We mentioned that briefly a little while ago, and the use of child safety seats, your observational studies. Do you plan to look at the pandemic impacts or the year-to-year comparison on those things as well?
Katie Womack (19:03):
So, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did waive the requirement to do a statewide seatbelt survey in 2020 because of the pandemic. And so, Texas did accept that waiver and we didn’t do one in 2020.
Bernie Fette (19:19):
Katie Womack (19:19):
We were able to go out at various points to do some curbside traffic observational surveys of seatbelt use and passenger seat use. And so we do have some data on that for last year and this year. We’re still analyzing it. Again, I’m not so sure that I would point to this is a pandemic impact. In some of our surveys, we did notice a decrease in seatbelt use in our surveys this year that were done earlier in the year. Now these are early indications that maybe a different population was out are, you know, that we were observing different folks from what is typical. So we just finished in June, the statewide survey and that’s being analyzed now. And so we’ll get a better picture of how that survey compares with the 2019 survey. And I think that’ll show us really where we are.
Bernie Fette (20:24):
And so even if there were changes from 2019 to 2020, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they were pandemic influenced or pandemic related.
Katie Womack (20:33):
We like to say, when we noticed that the behavior was different, we would tend to say is because everything is different.
Bernie Fette (20:38):
Katie Womack (20:38):
Because people out there are different. It’s hard to know if people’s behavior changed, or if the people changed that we were observing.
Bernie Fette (20:49):
You work in a field that seems like it’s frequently fascinating, but also occasionally might be kind of disheartening. I mean, after all, human driver behavior often turns out in ways that are tragic. People get hurt, people die every day. So in the face of that reality, what keeps you motivated for the work that you do?
Katie Womack (21:13):
In the whole scheme of things in the traffic safety arena and the efforts to make Texas roads safer for everyone, I would say that what I do is very much a supporting role. I would also say that I do think it’s a very important role. We’re really fortunate in Texas to have this sustaining interest in what people do and what they think, and not just throwing money at the problem or cracking down, but also measuring and evaluating those programs. Being able to study these attitudes and awareness patterns over a long period of time and quantify them is a way to say, hey, this is working or that the people know you’re out there. And the data indicates sometimes that there’s a need for more attention in this area or that area, or among this population segment. And so, you know, asking people what they think about a serious and worthwhile subject to me is a worthy purpose and getting their participation in the outcome and being part of that feedback loop is gratifying. It’s not just a really good thing to do. It’s also, as you say, really interesting. For me personally, it’s gratifying and it has been gratifying to witness some of the shifts in driver attitudes and awareness of traffic safety over the long term. And I’m just glad to be a part of it in this supporting role.
Bernie Fette (22:51):
So after 10 years of doing this particular part of your research, what’s the one thing that stands out for you. And I’m not necessarily talking about a single behavior from the research, but bigger and more broadly, is there a unifying or all-encompassing impression that you take away from a decade of learning what drivers think and what they do?
Katie Womack (23:19):
You know, I really don’t think there’s a single nugget, you know, that I would want to summarize in one sentence what the takeaway is because each element of what we’re looking at is so different. You know, a couple of things come to mind. We didn’t talk about the recognition of the campaigns, but that’s a big part of our survey too, is how often do they recognize them? Do they know what they mean? I think that that’s something to walk away with is which ones are successful, which ones are less being heard and where they’re positioned and where they might be better positioned. And then, too, we also had the opportunity with these kinds of surveys when the laws are changed or something’s added it’s, if it’s strengthened, for example, the seat belt law in 2009 was extended to the backseat. So we knew at that point, what percentage of people knew about the requirement that drivers and front seat passengers had to buckle up. But how, how do we know over time, that year, and then going forward, how many people knew about the backseat? And so, those kinds of things that really need to be studied, those are some of the takeaways, you know, that we can show that these laws are having an impact and they’re important to strengthen. And here’s the results when you do strengthen them.
Bernie Fette (24:43):
We were talking earlier about whether or not the cell phone use, uh, as a consistently high number of people who admit to engaging in that risk. And I know you said that you can’t really look at one year and say that this could be the turning of a tide. For a point of comparison, you mentioned how laws can change and be strengthened over time. I think it was somewhere in the mid ’80s when Texas changed the law, making it illegal to have an open container of a alcoholic beverage in the car when you’re driving. Impaired driving, over time, became a socially unacceptable behavior.
Katie Womack (25:25):
I would certainly agree with that. Yes.
Bernie Fette (25:28):
Okay. So I wonder if the same would have to happen for cell phone use and texting while driving. If we have to get to a point where it is just increasingly socially unacceptable before we start to see the same decrease in incidents in the same way that we have seen a decrease in incidents of drunk driving over the years. Is that a reasonable expectation — or a reasonable hope?
Katie Womack (25:57):
It’s a reasonable hope. It’s a reasonable question but it’s also quite complex. And I say that our survey shows as well as many other surveys show that as you say, drinking and driving is socially unacceptable. The risks are known and appreciated, or at least recognized by most people. And the same is true, maybe not to the same extent, but to a large extent, we find that people do recognize that texting is dangerous and even are aware that there are, is a ban in Texas on texting and driving. But what we find, and this is true not just in Texas, but elsewhere, is that people do believe that despite that, that they can text and drive. They know it’s not safe. They know it’s not socially acceptable. But they still continue to do it. And that’s kind of a whole other topic.
Bernie Fette (26:55):
Right. I guess we could have a full episode just on that question.
Katie Womack (26:57):
Yeah. Yeah. That goes into the safety culture. You know, what’s acceptable, what’s unacceptable. And what do you do? And this is one of those quandaries that we find in this survey over and over is there’s a high unacceptability rating for texting and driving, but then there’s also a kind of an unacceptable level of folks who still say that they do it.
Bernie Fette (27:20):
Maybe some of it is, it’s dangerous for everybody else, but I’m a better driver so I can handle it.
Katie Womack (27:27):
Well, that’s what I’ve seen in the literature. That that’s a possible explanation.
Bernie Fette (27:32):
So, there’s a certain amount of “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Katie Womack (27:34):
Bernie Fette (27:34):
Thank you for doing this, Katie.
Katie Womack (27:39):
Well, thank you, Bernie, for inviting me. It was certainly a pleasure.
Bernie Fette (27:45):
Everything about how we drive is a product of what we know. From the moment that we settle into the driver’s seat, our thoughts dictate decisions that hold bona fide life-and-death consequences for ourselves, our passengers, and everyone else with whom we share the roads. Engineering, enforcement, and education can go a long way in making those roads safer. But ultimately it’s often the consciousness and culture of the driving population that can bring about the most meaningful and lasting safety improvements. That’s why it’s so important to measure and more thoroughly understand how that traffic safety culture can evolve over time.
Bernie Fette (28:30):
Thanks for listening. We hope you’ll be back for the next episode, when we visit with Beverly Kuhn. Beverly is an expert in connected transportation, and also in the connections that are necessary to developing and growing the next generation of transportation professionals.
Bernie Fette (28:48):
Thinking Transportation is a production of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of the Texas A&M University System. The show is edited and produced by Chris Pourteau. I’m your writer and host, Bernie Fette. Thanks again for listening. We’ll see you next time.