Green means go, red means reward

Decreasing risky decisions for adolescent drivers
Font Size

Article body

An Auburn University researcher has found that rewards can reduce risky decision-making behind the wheel, especially for adolescents who drive dangerously.

Dr. Ben Hinnant, associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science in the College of Human Sciences, reported these new findings in the field of research dedicated to understanding the leading cause of adolescent mortality.

Hinnant’s study found that rewards significantly increased the number of safer driving decisions for adolescents who reported their driving style as high in risk-taking (fast, angry or distracted driving behaviors).

“There is a lot of developmental research suggesting that increases in risk-taking behavior during adolescence are, at least, partly due to heightened sensation seeking and reward sensitivity,” Hinnant said. “Incentivizing safe driving behavior could be a way to leverage or refocus that heightened reward sensitivity.”

Twenty-four adolescents, ages 15 to 17, self-reported their driving styles using a modified version of the Multidimensional Driving Style Inventory, or MDSI. The MDSI surveys participants’ driving attitudes, motivations and behavior.

Each of the participants played a driving game that simulated approaching stoplights, during which they had to choose whether to stop at a yellow light or risk advancing through an intersection when the traffic light was about to turn red. The experiment was designed so all adolescents played the game under different conditions: A peer condition where they were told another teenager they just met was observing their choices and a reward condition that was set up so that safer decision-making would yield more monetary rewards. During the control condition, teens were told they were under no peer observation and were offered no extra rewards.

The main takeaways are that rewards were generally effective in reducing risky driving decisions, but this was especially true for teens who engage in dangerous driving behaviors that put them at risk of being involved in a crash. In general, these findings applied whether a peer was observing the teens’ driving decisions or not. These findings suggest that rewards may        
be an effective way to decrease risky driving during adolescence.

Hinnant’s study evaluates a more complex picture of risky teenage driving by considering individual driving styles and how they are affected under peer-observed and reward-driven circumstances.

“It’s interesting and promising that rewards were most effective in changing decision-making for teens who seem to be most at risk for being involved in a crash. There are still some big questions to address,” Hinnant said. “Would incentivizing safe driving practices translate over to real-world driving behavior, as compared to our results from a lab setting? If so, what is the best way to make a reward-focused approach to improve adolescent driver safety practical and broadly applicable? Answering these questions will be key to reducing the number of teen motor vehicle crashes, over and above the effects of existing programs like graduated driver licensing.”

Hinnant’s research was internally funded through an Auburn University intramural grant and the Alabama Agricultural Experimental Station SEED Program Award. He hopes to expand on this research through grant funding. Moving forward, Hinnant hopes to improve the research by increasing the participant sample and further exploring the relationship among age, adolescent development and reward sensitivity.

Because the study showed a strong correlation between rewards and safe driving decisions, the research findings have serious implications for crash prevention efforts. Hinnant’s results could support initiatives such as a reward system for safe teen drivers which would operate like an insurance premium discount. With additional research, public health authorities and private sector officials will be better equipped to incentivize safer adolescent driving to help prevent unnecessary vehicular injury or death.

Dr. Jennifer Kerpelman, professor and associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Human Sciences, leads the charge for more practice-oriented research in the college. She said this experiment is one of many that translate research from the lab to practical action.

“It is important that universities, especially land-grant institutions like Auburn, are contributing to solutions that make a real impact on people’s lives,” Kerpelman said. “Human scientists are integral to understanding and affecting daily decisions people make. In the case of Ben Hinnant’s research, that could be a matter of life or death.”