Expert Blog

A small nudge that could save lives

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The purpose of speeding fines is, of course, to make our roads safer. But the letters sent to those who receive them – cryptically entitled ‘Notices of Intended Prosecution’ and thick with legalese – focus on the fines rather than the reason behind them, and on collecting money rather than saving lives.

Could something as simple as improving these letters help to reduce speeding and thereby reduce road deaths? That possibility is being investigated by the Behavioural Insights Team, in partnership with West Midlands Police.

The Behavioural Insights Team – also known as the ‘Nudge Unit’ – was set up in 10 Downing Street in 2010, but has since become independent of the Government. It is led by David Halpern, who previously worked in No 10 under Tony Blair, and is advised by former Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell and Professor Richard Thaler, behavioural economist and co-author of the influential book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

The Behavioural Insights Team’s mission is to improve public services by taking into account the ways people really behave and what influences our decisions. To this end, it has promoted within Government the need to experiment: to test different ways of doing things and evaluate the results to find the best. In this way, they have found better ways for HMRC to get more people to pay their taxes on time, and for the NHS to get more people to sign up to the Organ Donation Register.

The trial they’re running with speeding fines is pretty simple. They’ve designed an additional leaflet for West Midlands Police to send out with the standard letter, headlined ‘No driver means to kill. They were just going too fast.’

The leaflet states that ‘Over the last five years alone, 779 children were killed or seriously injured on the roads in the West Midlands alone,’ and reminds the reader that the purpose of speed limits is to reduce accidents. ‘The reason you’re getting this letter,’ it finishes, ‘is to make sure the next time we’re called to investigate a serious collision, you’re not involved.’

The effect of this leaflet is being tested through a randomised controlled trial: some people caught speeding receive it, some just receive the standard letter. So far, the results show that including the extra leaflet gets more people to pay their fines on time, and reduces the number who end up being prosecuted for not paying. (As shown in Figure 3.5 of the Behavioural Insights Team’s latest Update Report.                       

The more important question remains, though: will it help to stop people speeding again in the future? The Behavioural Insights Team is collecting data on re-offending for these drivers, and promises the results in its next Update Report.

Following the findings of our Road Safety survey, we certainly have our fingers crossed. If the leaflet works, this could be a cheap, easy way of making our roads safer and saving lives.

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