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Can we rely on Deterrence Theory to motivate safe road user behaviour?

Elliott, B


ACRS conference 2008

Influencing discretionary driver behaviours in Australia has relied heavily on the coercive strategy of deterrence. This paper takes as its starting point the use of deterrence in influencing compliance with road laws.

The paper begins by recognising the limits of deterrence and indicates that behaviour is influenced by many factors beyond deterrence. The notion of deterrence is defined and explored leading to the proposition that if motorists do not refrain from offending out of fear of consequences they are by definition not deterred. 'General' and 'specific' deterrence are defined and shown to be the same mechanism but applied to different populations. The targets for 'general' deterrence are not the general population of motorists but those offenders or prospective offenders who can be influenced through fear, i.e. are likely to offend and likely to be deterred by the threat of punishment.

The main focus of the paper is on the failure of the road safety professionals, including police, to place more emphasis and resources on influencing offenders’ and prospective offenders’ perceived likelihood of detection.

Deterring would-be offenders relies heavily on convincing them as to the likelihood of being detected and punished. Examples of the lack of enforcement are presented and the benefits of enhancing enforcement are explored. The paper concludes with a plea for all of us to convince the public, the politicians, and treasurers to agree to consider increasing the level of resources specifically available for traffic safety enforcement and publicity aimed at changing drivers’ perceptions regarding the likelihood of detection and beliefs regarding the incidence of other drivers speeding (the descriptive norm).