Auburn Research Finds Rewards for Safe Driving Could Reduce Teenage Car Accidents

Charlotte Tuggle | Communications Editor

Dangerous driving is a major contributor to car accidents, the leading cause of teenage mortality in the United States. Ben Hinnant, associate professor in Human Development and Family Science in the College of Human Sciences, found that teenagers who exhibit dangerous driving behavior are especially sensitive to rewards for safer driving.

In Hinnant’s latest study, twenty-four adolescent participants reported their driving styles then 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 with a reward condition so that safer decision-making would yield more monetary 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 risky driving behaviors that put them at risk of being involved in a crash.

“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.”

Because the study shows 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 that operate like an insurance premium discount.

“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.”

Read more about Dr. Hinnant’s research here. For more information on the Human Development and Family Science program at Auburn, visit their website .