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January 23, 2024Episode 74. Behind the Wheel, What We Think and What We Do Can Define Who We Are.
FEATURING: Katie Womack
Attitudes and behaviors related to driving reveal our traffic safety culture. Like other forms of culture, it has a way of changing over time—and not always for the better.
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 45 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 (00:14):
Hello, and welcome to Thinking Transportation. Conversations about how we get ourselves and the things we need from one place to another. I’m Bernie Fette with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Ask any 10 people what we mean by the word “culture” and you might get as many as 10 different answers. Generally speaking though, we might define culture as the collection of norms, habits, and customs that are shared by a specific group. The 2023 Traffic Safety Culture Survey examines those actions in the context of our driving patterns, whether those norms are getting better or getting worse. Here to help us understand how those attitudes and behaviors are changing over time is Katie Womack, a senior research scientist at TTI and resident authority on the concept of traffic safety culture. Katie, thanks for being a repeat guest on our show. We’re really glad you could join us.
Katie Womack (01:17):
Thank you, Bernie. It’s always a pleasure.
Bernie Fette (01:20):
Rather than just jumping into the research findings here, I wanted to first acknowledge that you’re clearly one of the most experienced experts on the TTI staff. 45 years. Is that right?
Katie Womack (01:35):
I’m blushing. Yes, that’s right.
Bernie Fette (01:37):
<laugh>. Okay. I’m choosing my words carefully here. <laugh>. Um, but really almost half a century of research that you’re responsible for. I’m really curious to know exactly what it was that led you several decades ago to start on this path. Was there a particular subject in school that fascinated you or a personal experience that made you think, well, when I grow up I wanna do this thing? Or was there a particular teacher who inspired you? How did this get started?
Katie Womack (02:10):
What an interesting question. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that before. Um, well,
Bernie Fette (02:15):
It’s about time somebody did <laugh>.
Katie Womack (02:17):
Yes. I think I just, you know, happened on this accidentally and to my very good fortune. It was actually a professor. I was in grad school taking a course in demography and my professor was Dr. Pat Gusman, who also was a researcher at the Texas Transportation Institute at the time. And so I became a grad assistant and that’s how I happened along this path. I got involved in really a wide variety of very interesting projects right from the get go and it has held my interest for all these years. <laugh>.
Bernie Fette (02:57):
Well, and it sounds like you’ve really gotten yourself into another really interesting topic here, the subject of traffic safety culture. Let’s talk about the traffic safety culture survey. For those who are new to that phrase, what exactly do we mean when we say traffic safety culture and what’s the purpose of the survey that you’ve been doing now, several iterations.
Katie Womack (03:20):
Sure. Let me start with what traffic safety culture means. The textbook definition of positive or healthy traffic safety culture is the shared values, actions and behaviors that demonstrate a commitment to safety over competing goals and demands. So culture’s become quite a buzzword recently we hear about the culture of this and the culture of that, the company culture, the community culture. But when we talk about traffic safety culture, what we’re referring to is what the public sentiment and awareness are with regard to traffic safety issues, as well as how much people engage in safe or unsafe behaviors. So a strong and healthy traffic safety culture would be one where those who use the transportation system understand the risk associated with transportation and choose to make safe decisions. People in a community, a state or a country with a strong traffic safety culture are likely to use their protective safety devices like seat belts, child safety seats, motorcycle and bicycle helmets, and they voluntarily obey traffic laws and don’t do dangerous things like driving impaired or distracted.
Bernie Fette (04:44):
It sounds like there’s a little bit of do unto others as you would have them do unto you in this notion.
Katie Womack (04:51):
Yes. It’s a matter of civility in large part.
Bernie Fette (04:55):
And what’s the purpose behind the survey that you do?
Katie Womack (04:59):
Well, for decades as our transportation system evolved, the improvements have relied primarily on engineering and enforcement solutions. But now a growing number of professionals and policy makers say that if we limit our options to those in the future, then improvements are gonna be just incremental at best. So unless we can solve all of our transportation problems with autonomous vehicles <laugh>, we are at this point, depending largely on the way we change the way we think about safety on our roadways and then follow up with our actions. So this means changing our traffic safety culture. And so this is what we wanna look at. We started out years ago to get a baseline and now we’re comparing ourselves on our safety culture from that baseline. We started the survey back in 2010. That was our first pilot. It’s supported by the Center for Transportation Safety here at TTI.
Katie Womack (06:06):
And the survey is modeled after the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey that they conduct called the Traffic Safety Culture Index. So we model our questions after theirs and that way we are able to compare our results with theirs. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, Our survey’s conducted every odd number year and their survey is every year. Both of these surveys are for the purpose of deepening our understanding of traffic safety culture and the way we do the survey. The Texas survey sample is about 1,300 respondents and it’s an online survey of drivers 18 and older and we use a survey panel drawn from a household sample, a database that covers all of Texas. So the respondents opt into the survey as opposed to being randomly selected. Right. The AAA Foundation survey is also online, has a sample of about 2,500 to 3,000 drivers across the country that are 16 and older. And it also uses a household address based panel, but it’s with random selection. So that’s basically how we conduct the survey on every other year basis.
Bernie Fette (07:21):
And this most recent year that you’ve just, uh, completed your work, uh, you looked at seven behaviors, which a majority of people in the survey thought were getting worse than they were three years ago. So I was hoping that we could just very briefly touch on each one of those starting with texting and driving. More than 60 percent of your respondents think that that’s a much bigger problem now.
Katie Womack (07:45):
Yes. We actually ask a list of questions. We pose the question, do you think this problem is much bigger, somewhat bigger, the same, smaller or much smaller than three years ago? And we asked this about 12 different issues, but for seven of them, the majority of the respondents thought it was a bigger problem than three years ago. In other words, a growing problem. So the biggest ones as you mentioned, are texting and driving cell phone use while driving distracted drivers and aggressive drivers. And all of these were over 80 percent who said that the problem is either a much bigger problem or a bigger problem than it was three years ago. Mm-Hmm.
Bernie Fette (08:29):
<affirmative>, you also mentioned that there were seven of those 12 that people thought were getting worse. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. What are the ones that people think are not getting worse?
Katie Womack (08:39):
Yes, there were a few of the issues that we put before the respondents and you know, this is a little bit of a bright spot relative to the others. Seatbelt use, driver courtesy, giving right of way and children not using car seats. Now that’s not to say that folks don’t think that these are problems, they just don’t see these problems as getting worse.
Bernie Fette (09:01):
I see. Okay. Let’s back up a little bit to the top of your list. Texting while driving. One of the big ones, as you mentioned, that was over 80 percent of the people thinking it’s getting worse. But you also asked a question in each one of these cases about the level of support that people had for the laws that restrict these behaviors. What sort of insights did you gain there?
Katie Womack (09:23):
Well, I can tell you that a statewide law against texting was strongly supported by over 85 percent of the respondents and over 80 percent support a law against handheld cell phone use. Okay. But far fewer people want to actually have cell phones taken away while driving. There was less support for banning cell phone use altogether.
Bernie Fette (09:48):
So there’s support for people banning handheld, but not the hands-free version.
Katie Womack (09:54):
Yes. People still want to be able to use their Bluetooth.
Bernie Fette (09:59):
I see. Okay. Distracted driving. It looks like nearly everybody thinks that that’s a much bigger problem now than it was three years ago.
Katie Womack (10:07):
Yes. These distracted driving related issues, texting, calling, distracted, driving in general, we’re all seen as worse this year than they were in our last survey. One of the bigger gainers in terms of people perceiving that it’s growing worse is aggressive driving that jumped from 70 percent to almost 83 percent. And then another surprising one was red light running this issue gained the most in people saying that it’s a growing problem.
Bernie Fette (10:41):
When we talk about distracted driving, you’ve just given a couple of examples of what constitutes distracted driving, texting, cell phone use. People might be trying to read something. I’ve actually seen, I think unfortunately maybe all of us have seen someone trying to read a newspaper or some other piece of paper while they’re, while they’re trying to navigate a roadway. But on the question of aggressive driving, what does that look like? What in the scientific sense constitutes aggressive driving?
Katie Womack (11:13):
Well, AAA foundation in their survey define it as switching lanes, you know, cutting in front of others and speeding. And the typical kinds of things you think about when you think about someone driving aggressively, like I say, mainly lane switching and driving too fast. We didn’t define for the respondent in our survey what we mean by aggressive driving. We let them determine their own concept of what that is.
Bernie Fette (11:44):
So that’s kind of in the eyes of the beholder, in other words.
Katie Womack (11:46):
Yes, I would say so.
Bernie Fette (11:48):
Yeah. Let’s talk a little about speeding, getting worse. Nearly three fourths of the people that you surveyed think it’s a bigger problem now. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. Uh, and I think that I can recall some stories about how speeding was a bigger issue during the pandemic because the roads were more empty. People thought that they could take advantage of that by driving faster. Do I remember that correctly?
Katie Womack (12:10):
Yes, that’s right. Speeding is something that we noticed an uptick, an alarming uptick during the pandemic. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> in Texas in particular, speeding fatalities went up in 2020 and in 2021 dramatically, dramatically. I mean 30 percent statewide. Wow. So this is not an inaccurate perception. So those high speed crashes are often highly publicized and as we see from our results, the public just notices that people are driving faster and it’s a bigger problem.
Bernie Fette (12:45):
What about impaired driving? That’s on your list of seven, also, nearly two thirds of the people, or about two thirds of the people you surveyed think that drunk driving is a bigger problem now than before?
Katie Womack (12:57):
Yes. Impaired driving is a major focus in our state as it is in others because the consequences are so severe. And every year since the survey has taken place, the view that impaired driving is worse, has increased. And this behavior is highly unacceptable in the public eye. And so the countermeasures to require, for example, interlock devices to prevent a vehicle from starting if someone has alcohol on their breath, these are highly supported by people in Texas.
Bernie Fette (13:30):
Okay. We’ve touched on a handful of topics here and there is so very much in your study, but broadly speaking, what do the findings tell you? How are things shifting? I know you’ve done comparisons from 2021 to 2023 and you’ve looked at things historically over the seven installments of the survey. Basically, what did the findings tell you?
Katie Womack (13:52):
Well, there have been some noteworthy shifts from 2021 to 2023, but really the noteworthy shifts occurred from 2019 to 2021, largely because, you know, during the pandemic time. And so what we’re seeing now in some cases are some readjustments back to pre pandemic. Take for example, cell phone use, both for talking and for texting. These behaviors were seen as bigger problems by a higher percentage in 2023. But this marker’s actually less than it was before the 2021 survey. So in 2015, 17, 2019, the perception of this as a growing problem was less than it is today. So this sort of, I would say signals a return to pre pandemic perspectives, but also we see support growing more recently for outlying texting and driving and more consistent with the pre 2021 levels. And then, um, I wanted to mention that there are some positive shifts that continue to trend upwards steadily. And this is showing some improvements in traffic safety culture. The handheld cell phone use has increased as an unacceptable behavior every year of the survey since we begin asking about it.
Bernie Fette (15:25):
So year over year, more and more people are finding that to be something that’s just not good for Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, other drivers to do. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>.
Katie Womack (15:33):
And we also are seeing some growing support every year for some countermeasures, some that are more strongly supported than others. There’s a trend upward for red light camera enforcement and sobriety checkpoints. The support for motorcycle helmet law is the highest it’s been since the survey began. Hmm.
Bernie Fette (15:55):
Okay. I’m hoping that we can start to wrap up by hearing your own general impressions beyond the actual findings, your own personal impressions, your thoughts on the whole concept of traffic safety culture, what it aspires to, and what will it take to create meaningful changes in how people regard each other on the road?
Katie Womack (16:19):
Ooh, that’s a tough question. What will it take? Texas, like many other states would like to see no fatalities on the roadways. Texas has a road to zero goal and that goal is to have zero deaths on Texas roadways by the year 2050 and to cut the number of fatalities in half by the year 2035. So that may sound realistic or maybe more likely unrealistic to you because zero sounds impossible and change is hard and big changes take a long time without a major disruption like through innovation or legislation or as we saw in 2020 a disease pandemic. So in some cases we experience a disruption that affects traffic and then afterwards we go back to some of our old ways. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>. But we also recover back to some of our good ways too, as we see some of those examples in our survey. But ultimately that is the goal.
Bernie Fette (17:26):
We’ve talked a lot about how people see things as being worse. What’s the good news if there is any in the findings? Any progress in the sense of creating a more mindful traffic safety culture?
Katie Womack (17:42):
Well, I would agree. We have made so much progress in traffic safety in this state. And in the country people are aware more so than ever. And we’ve had strengthening of our laws and huge emphasis in the traffic safety area to make the roads safer. And one of the things that this particular survey brings to light is the norm of unacceptable behavior on the roadways. And you know, as I think you mentioned earlier, most unacceptable is driving after having too much to drink. Um, we find that nine out of 10 say this is unacceptable and eight out of 10 say completely unacceptable. But right up there this year and something that has been growing is the unacceptability of drowsy driving, which we define as driving when you’re so sleepy that you have trouble keeping your eyes open. And nine out of 10 people also say, this is unacceptable. And then other behaviors that get nine out of 10 disapproval scores, checking social media and texting while driving, typing, reading, text while driving. We have a few things that are still acceptable in Texas. One notable one is speeding. <laugh> speeding is a little more highly accepted as in norm normal behavior than other risky behaviors.
Bernie Fette (19:06):
Okay. Before we wrap up though, I know that you follow the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey on this topic. Can you give us a sense of how the findings in Texas and the findings of the national study compare? How do Texans compare with drivers in other states?
Katie Womack (19:23):
I can tell you that the views of the problems in Texas are somewhat in line. They vary by a few degrees. How we differ though is in our levels of self-report for engaging in some of these risky behaviors. I’ll give you an example. In the United States, the AAA Foundation survey found that 7 percent admitted that they drink and drive or that they have driven after drinking more than they thought they should have in the last 30 days. 7 percent in Texas, that same question found 19 percent who said that.
Bernie Fette (20:05):
More than double?
Katie Womack (20:06):
And we’re more than double on several items. Speeding is more than double; red light running was about 25 percent in the United States sample and Texas sample was 42 percent. Um, so those are areas where our behavior is more excessive. Um,
Bernie Fette (20:27):
It would be easy for us to draw a conclusion from that that Texas drivers are just riskier than drivers in other states. But would that be a fair assumption to make? Am I looking too much at the surface of that?
Katie Womack (20:40):
Are Texas drivers riskier than others?
Bernie Fette (20:42):
Because the numbers suggest that.
Katie Womack (20:45):
Bernie Fette (20:45):
But maybe that’s not fair.
Katie Womack (20:47):
They do. Uh, Texas drivers admit to riskier behaviors than the AAA Foundation respondents do. That’s true. And we do have some crash data that supports that our numbers are higher in some cases than the national averages.
Bernie Fette (21:04):
Katie Womack (21:05):
What I think is significant about the 2023 results is the fact that the pandemic period really changed so much. We did see fatalities increase in Texas and the percentages are in the double digits as far as the big factors –speeding and distracted driving and alcohol impaired crashes. So the perception by Texas drivers that traffic safety behavior and associated problems are worse indicates an awareness of a less safe traffic environment. But on a positive note, the survey also indicates support for stronger laws and enforcement. Even though Texans continue to self-report risky behaviors, they show an awareness and an agreement that measures are needed to curb those behaviors.
Bernie Fette (22:03):
So a classic mix of good news and bad news. Last question. What is it that keeps you showing up to work every day after 45 years of doing this?
Katie Womack (22:14):
Well, I guess I would say as projects like these, you know, being able to do a traffic safety culture survey, I got involved with the survey back in 2010 when we started it. And one of the interesting things to me about this survey in particular is it’s big-picture focus. So we can take these data and examined them and as we’ve been talking about at the granular level, and there’s so much more underneath it that we didn’t have a chance to explore. But we can look at these results by groupings of individuals. But with this survey, it’s the bigger picture, it’s the concept of our societal viewpoint that gives this survey added meaningfulness. And I really have had the rewarding experience of seeing the longer view and how traffic safety has changed over the years. Things like the seatbelt law and strengthening the child safety seat law and all of the advances in impaired driving research and behavior change, and now the growing problem of distracted driving and how to address it. These are changes that have occurred within the span of my professional life. And to be able to do the research that measures these changes is interesting and enjoyable, but also beneficial. And so it’s been and continues to be an opportunity for me to learn and grow in a field that is pretty fascinating.
Bernie Fette (23:48):
Yes. And the enthusiasm is evident there. Katie Womack, senior research scientist and program manager at TTI and resident expert working at the intersection of human behavior and transportation safety. Katie, this has been fascinating. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge with us and thanks also for your many years of service. We’re most grateful for both. Thank you.
Katie Womack (24:15):
Thank you, Bernie.
Bernie Fette (24:18):
After studying it for several years, researchers have a pretty good understanding of what a strong and genuine traffic safety culture might look like. It would be an environment in which people routinely said yes to using seat belts, child safety seats, and cycling helmets, and said no to speeding, running red lights or driving while impaired. It would be a place where actions were guided by a shared interest in the wellbeing of all users of the transportation system, a culture that values safety over convenience or any other competing goals. Thanks for listening. Please take just a minute to give us a review, subscribe, share this episode, and please join us again next time for a conversation about getting ourselves and the stuff we need from point A to point B. 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 joining us. We’ll see you next time.