Behaviour Change - Necessity is the Mother of Invention


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Dr. Ron Van Houten talks about behaviourally engineering traffic safety - an interview from the ABAI Conference.

Podcast Episode 15 Behaviour Change - Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Dr. Ron Van Houten, Bobbi Hoadley, Cathy Knights

ABA technical concepts covered in this podcast: Behaviour change procedures; pattern analyses; measurement; Functional Analysis; punishment procedures; negative reinforcement by reducing time and effort; positive punishment using delay and exertion; motivating operations and establishing operations; contextual fit; visual contextual cues; efficiency; group contingencies; maintenance  

Bobbi and Cathy: When we have a problem that isn’t being solved, we create an intervention, or an invention, that will address the problem. The person we are talking to is such an interesting man, his name is Doctor Ron Van Houten and he is an ABA doctor and a professor at Western Michigan University. He has done work all over North American and Europe in traffic safety and how to decrease the conflicts that create near misses and people getting hurt. He has changed the behaviour of both drivers and pedestrians using Behaviour Analysis. Ron sets up solutions that engineer the behavior of everybody in those situations to mitigate the risk.



Ron: There were studies done that show that cars coming up to a crosswalk don’t have a good line of sight. Places in NY city a number of people crushed to death by trucks. So they put an arrow up high but it didn’t work. One simple solution was staggering the stop lines.

Cathy: There are times when I would jay-walk, I think to myself ‘could I not have walked down to the corner to the crosswalk?”

Ron: In essence, we know that people don’t like to wait. We find out where people would like to cross. Pedestrian generators. You can try educating with behavioural solutions.

Bobbi: I would think all good functional analysis of behaviour is doing that – find  out where the behaviour is going and then decide whether you can actually change it or whether it’s better to go with the behaviour and just change the circumstances. Always juggling the reinforcement. In my situation, I measure a person against themselves. For you, you are dealing with people and conflicts and they all want efficiency.

Ron: I wanted to get people to not use the elevator when they didn’t need it. I tried putting information about health benefits of using the stairs. Didn’t change. So I increased the wait time on the elevator and everyone who could use the stairs went to the stairs. By increasing their effort and time, I changed their behaviour.

I did some things for the National Traffic Safety Administration, and we wanted to get people to wear seatbelts. I gave a survey, and sure enough put them into the car and baseline showed they wore their belts. Then we moved it to treatment, which was moving the car increase speed, if you buckled your belt, that force gradually went away. You have to repeat the reminders. A lot of people don’t buckle their seats before moving the car. You do a repeat reminder after they’re going. Pedal force-gets 100% seatbelt use, whereas before it was a delay. I used GM’s brake shift, to then get seatbelt reminder, and if they don’t buckle they can’t shift immediately, they have to wait 8 seconds. We had big increases in seatbelt use. They still have some choice.

One of the cities in Florida, were having children struck going to and from school. I did the analysis and said 1) you don’t have a lot of sidewalks near the school. I looked and people were in such a hurry dropping kids off. Motivating operation-community wants to do something about it. 2) Reduce speeding when kids are going to and from school. Educate parents about kids getting struck, needing to be under speed limit or enforce it aggressively. For years, no more children were struck going to and from school. You need to prepare people before the change that they have to accept it.

Bobbi: And this is a project you went back to and took data?

Ron: We got the community buy-in to change the way things are done. Four years later, people were telling me it was awesome. They hit a tipping point into the high 70’s-people and drivers imitate behaviour. Everyone starts to yield. It become self-sustaining and changing dynamics of culture.

Bobbi: Set up the group dynamics to either punish or reinforce.

Ron: Some of the worst places I’ve seen, people say “oh we don’t have a problem”. When people try and make efforts, that’s where change is. Where there’s no motivation to change, it becomes harder. It’s almost paradoxical, when there’s a lot of interest, usually things are happening already.

Bobbi: That’s why we follow our data.

Ron: Score and look at what’s going on in Toronto-measure running lights.

Bobbi: The programs to increase biking and decrease risks of biking in Vancouver use tools that are really varied.

Ron: Consider for a moment, children used to walk or bicycle to school. Look today at obesity cause-lack of walking and bicycling. It’s a good thing to promote walking and bicycling because it saves on our healthcare costs.

Bobbi: I do notice the more they put in structures to help bikers be more safe, it’s also the changing driver behaviour to be politer, I think you do reach a tipping point. I can’t hit them, I better join them.
Ron: There is a greater acceptance of cycling than there used to be, and a little better with pedestrians. I would say Canada does better in yielding than the United States. I tried something years a go, it was the idea at the start of the walk, we had eyes that animated to look left and right. It would increase looking-so we could prompt people to look for vehicles. In Britain they have signs “look right” because we in North America look left, to look for moving cars. Winston Churchill was almost killed in NY City stepping off the crosswalk and was hit. Reminding people to look and knowing where to look. Crossing clockwise is different than crossing counter-clockwise. You have to use more behaviour to look at something coming from behind you than ahead of you. With texting you can’t see anything.

Bobbi: I personally love the scrambling intersections in Europe. I don’t see these happening, can we expect that in the future?

Ron: Scrambling intersections, creates more delay, but tends to be where there’s a lot of people. Match up treatments to people best you can.

Bobbi: They have to provide equipment anyway, why not engineer it to be more helpful and safe for everyone. Ron: You can use something called a gateway treatment, so driver’s have to cross between them, we can get very good yielding with that and it’s an inexpensive tool. How much is it just the sign with no message? But going between these signs seems important too.

Bobbi: So it’s a visual contextual fit.

Ron: Exactly. We started to look at survival rates of the solutions. We found some that reduce the maintenance cost. Developing new ideas, some low cost. Think of the reminders in the car to wear seatbelt – costs nothing when software is already there.

Bobbi: I would contend that most of the time it’s a lot less expensive to maintain a solution, than maintain a problem. Why I love behaviour analysis, we’re all about the solution.

Ron: The other thing we can do is feedback and reinforcement. When we have a community making progress, we need to convey that to them to keep going in the right direction.  

It was so nice to have Ron interacting with us and telling us more. The part I really like is that everything he does is the same as what I do. Even though he’s applying it to a variety of groups of people and he has a specific goal, he still does an analysis of the behaviour, and uses all the same tools I do, keeps it pragmatically going until he hits a tipping point and then keeps maintaining and generalizing it. It’ll be different for me crossing the street now.  It just goes to prove that necessity is the mother of invention.


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