Relationship between theoretical knowledge and behaviors in traffic

Relationship between theoretical knowledge and behaviors in traffic

Lic. María Cristina Isoba. Director Road Safety Education and Research, Luchemos por la Vida. Argentina.

In this presentation I would like to show briefly the resources we have used to diagnose the level of education of the adult population in relation to traffic safety, and how this corresponds to their behavior in the traffic system, with the intention of designing and implementing a traffic education plan for children, teenagers and adults. The idea is to cause a positive influence in order to increase traffic safety and reduce the amount of accidents.

One of the main lines of action in developing traffic safety involves educating the population to develop their knowledge as well as a safe, responsible and supportive behavior on the street with the basic aim of preventing traffic accidents. This is what all experts in this problem know.

But, where should we start and how should we go about this task in a country where over 7,500 people die every year in traffic accidents – at a rate of 1,200 people killed for every million circulating vehicles – and over 130,000 are injured every year due to this problem? The population at large participates every day, both suffering and inflicting wrongs, attributing each accident to fortuitous and chance actions, taking each tragedy as a personal misfortune, the result of destiny or fate. Meanwhile, the public authorities, who are supposedly responsible for this problem, evade it out of ignorance or by closing their eyes to reality, in order to avoid assuming responsibilities which they believe will not bring them any short-term political gain.

This was the general situation we found in 1990 in Argentina, when we began to work with Luchemos por la Vida (Let’s Fight For Life), a non-profit organization whose goal is to prevent traffic accidents in our country in order to reduce the morbility and mortality rate caused by this problem.

Our starting hypothesis was that the high accident rate originated mainly from the lack of information of the population regarding safe behavior in traffic, the result of a total lack of traffic education, both systematically and occasionally in elementary and high schools in Argentina, as well as the near-absolute lack of training of drivers, who got their driving licenses with little more than complying with administrative requirements and, sometimes, by showing a basic control over their vehicle in a closed course.

We became convinced of the need of creating a new awareness in all the population regarding this epidemic that grew in silence and ignorance. One of de first actions we decided was to carry out a diagnosis on:

1) The level of technical knowledge of drivers in some topics related to traffic safety and accident prevention
2) The behavior of street users in the traffic system regarding the topics evaluated theoretically

3) The relationship between both results (in order to establish the grade of correspondence betwen knowledge and behaviors)

We gathered information by means of surveys made among drivers over 18 years-old touching some key topics (traffic lights, seat belts, alcohol, speeding, circulation on bicycles, helmet use, causes of accidents, etc.), and this information was compared with numerous systematic observations made in traffic of specific behaviors in each one of these topics. These surveys consisted of two sets of questions with multiple choice answers on “Diverse topics on safety and traffic safety education,” given to 628 drivers, from August to October 1991, and “Food habits and driving,” given to 612 drivers, from May to July 1992, in the city of Buenos Aires and outskirts. There were five systematic observations carried out in 1991, 1992, and 1995 which involved over 30,000 circulating vehicles.

I would now like to comment on some of the most significant results we obtained:


- 100% of those surveyed knew the meaning of the red light. However, systematic observations carried out at street crossings with traffic lights in the city of Buenos Aires showed that drivers did not respect the red traffic light approximately 1,903,560 times every day. This is roughly equivalent to 4 red traffic light violations every 3 days for every private circulating car, and 3 red traffic lights every hour for each circulating bus, if we divide the number of daily violations (1,903,560) by the number of circulating vehicles in the city (1,400,000).


- 92% of those surveyed knew that “drinking a couple of glasses of wine or any other alcoholic drink affects the reflexes needed to drive.” However, in a survey of food habits and driving 83% admitted to “driving after drinking alcohol.”


- 76% were aware that “driving at a higher speed than stipulated” increased the risk of suffering a traffic accident. However, in a survey on their habitual speed when driving in highways, 45% admitted to driving at “130 km/h or more” .


- 74% of those surveyed answered correctly that “circulation of bicycles in streets is safer in the same direction as traffic.” However, 45% circulated against the traffic.


- 71% of those surveyed were aware that “little children are unsafe on front seats, when they are on their own and even if they are held by an adult.” However, 42 % of parents carried their children on the front seat of the car.


- 67% of the population knew that “the seat belt protects the occupants of vehicles in traffic accidents,” but only 3% of this same population wore it at that time.


- 65% of drivers of motorbikes or motorcycles were aware of the protective effect of helmets in accidents. However, observations in the street showed only 19% wore them.

These and other topics which we analyzed led us to the following conclusions:

1) The results of the surveys indicated a high percentage of correct responses, with a general average of 72% of correct answers. This enabled us to say that the theoretical knowledge of the population was “acceptable” on average, especially taking into consideration the lack of education we mentioned previously.

2) The behavior we observed in the traffic system was mostly “unsatisfactory or incorrect”, since it involved violations of traffic norms which imply a high risk of mortal accidents, both for the road users surveyed as well as for others.

3) There was no correspondence, but rather contradiction, between the theoretical “knowledge” and the concrete daily behavior of street users. This disagreement indicated a superficial use of information, of “non-significant” knowledge in the deep, pedagogical and constructivist sense of the term. This should really conform “functional” knowledge, used to influence behaviors in those circumstances in which it is possible, and with diverse internal connections between what people have learnt and what they already knew through their history and personal experiences.

These conclusions have an enormous importance when planning strategies to increase traffic safety. We know that to inform about traffic norms and safe conducts is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to achieve changes of behaviors in favor of traffic safety and accident prevention. We need to “motivate” drivers to achieve a change of attitude and to develop healthier habits. Even more when the enforcement doesn´t work at all.

Generating a change of attitude is a more ambitious goal than achieving a change of behavior, but it is important to work on this in order to reach lasting effects over time, since attitudes determine, to a great extent, behaviors. Attitudes are built up during each person’s life and are a complex product of individual experiences regarding other people, which are processed by each individual in relation to his or her own personality, emotional situation, environment, previous experiences, etc. This makes up a system of beliefs and values related to reality that determines largely the decisions of that individual in a specific situation.

From these conclusions, the use of superficial and non-significant information by the majority of the population, the development of risk behaviors in road users We decided to carry out a general plan of traffic safety education for children, teenagers and adults aiming at creating a new individual and social awareness of the problem of traffic accidents and prevention, in order to develop attitudes, behaviors and habits in favor of each person’s life and those around. A real challenge and also an opportunity to create.

These programs, which are varied in their scopes, execution and results, have contributed to generating an important change in the attitude of the population at large regarding this problem.


Lic. María Cristina Isoba. Luchemos por la Vida. Argentina.

We developed a multiple-approach plan aimed to create a new individual and social awareness of the problem of traffic accidents and prevention, in order to develop attitudes, behaviors and habits in favor of each person’s life and those around, aimed at the individual “in the community.” We identified three main areas in the educational action: mass media, government and traffic education.

We understood that over and above the traditional action plans, carried out through formal education and proposals from authorities, we needed to generate a social change of attitude towards traffic accidents and behavior on the streets, in order to provoke changes in the system of individual beliefs and attitudes. To do this, we decided to influence public opinion with a view to generating spaces of reflection and examination, and of social debate regarding the problem of accidents and its relationship with individual and social behaviors of all citizens, in general, and authorities, in particular. With this in view, we decided to privilege work among:


In this field we carried out the following activities:

1) Mass awareness campaigns, by means of advertising spots on radio and TV, aiming at awakening interest and concern, that is, awareness of the serious problem of traffic accidents in our country, in order to increase the “perception of risk” among road users. We did this, by providing concrete information on safe behaviors connected with the main factors causing accidents and mortality in traffic (speeding, drinking and driving, night driving, seat belts, etc.) attempting an “argumentative” approach fit for the main population group receiving the message.

2) Work with the press. We established a permanent communication channel with the graphic press (newspapers and general interest or specific field magazines), radio and TV, sending information continuously pressing for:
- Divulging topics on traffic safety and accident prevention in news and special programs. For this, we send hundreds of short news clips to the main mass media nationally every month. Our Association takes part in TV programs and is interviewed in news, general interest programs, talk-shows, etc.
- Presenting information highlighting the causes of accidents that have been published, locally or internationally. For example, last year former President Raúl Alfonsín was seriously injured in a car accident and a local newspaper published on the front page that “he had been thrown out of the vehicle because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt” and this made all the other media touch this subject too. (Mass Media for Life Campaign).

3) Follow up of advertising and TV, in particular:

- Control and request of changes in commercial publicity or presentations showing behaviors contrary to traffic safety that had positive connotations. As an example, we asked Ericsson to change a graphic publicity that showed a beautiful couple riding a motorbike blissfully without helmets.
- Proposals to introduce comments or safe behaviors in fiction characters of programs produced by local TV (Mass Media for Life Campaign) aiming at establishing positive associations between safe behaviors and personal benefits.

4) Public recognition of positive actions of people in different mass media who help promote traffic safety in every form, through the Annual Luchemos por la Vida Awards, which include also professional drivers who have been singled out for their safe driving, teachers who encourage traffic education projects in their spheres of action, journalists, professionals, companies, insurance companies, etc.

5) Luchemos por la Vida magazine, sent free to all the town councils in the country and the main mass media.

6) Information on the Internet. We opened a Web space in 1998 in order to divulge information and news nationally and internationally. In this site we recently added a page open to participation of the community called “Reports of dangerous situations in traffic,” in which people can share their concern on local questions which they consider a source of traffic unsafety. These reports are open for everybody to see and are sent to the pertinent authorities.


We work with government authorities through:
- Presentation of proposals of laws and actions in the field of enforcement and organizing traffic, town planning and traffic education.
- Offering training courses for public officials on traffic and traffic safety education.


- For SCHOOLS, through a National Traffic Safety Education Plan, called “Schools for Life,” aimed at students of elementary and high schools, through participatory workshops and training courses for teachers related to the contents and the teaching material in classrooms, according to a systemic approach to traffic.
- For SAFE DRIVERS. We have been dictating courses for new drivers and for people who are renewing their driving license during the last five years in the Traffic Administration of the city of Buenos Aires. We also teach courses on “safe or defensive driving” for drivers of companies who aim at safe or defensive driving.


The possibilities of analyzing in detail the results we have achieved in these nearly 10 years of work exceed the time we have available. The programs, each different in scope, realization and achievements, have contributed to generating an important change of attitude in the population at large regarding this problem. We believe that approaching it from different fields, with a special emphasis on mass media, has enabled us to create a new social awareness on this problem. As an example, in the last polls previous to national and city elections, the traffic and accidents problem was included by people among the10 most important problems to be solved by politicians, who have been forced to include it in their agendas, even though they are still far from the ideal or desirable state. We observe important improvements in traffic behavior of the community in specific topics, such as wearing seat belts in cars and helmets on bicycles and motorcycles, improvement in respecting the priority of pedestrians, etc. There have also appeared small groups of people in different parts of the country who demand greater safety and traffic education. Over and above what still needs to be done, we understand that this comprehensive and multiple approach deserves to be continued, taking into account results, and has to be deepened and considered when the time comes to plan actions.