OPINION: It’s time to bring gamification into the road safety spotlight

Published on behalf of Road Safety GB

In this opinion piece, Paul Cope – UK partnerships director of tech platform, the Safe Roads Challenge – explains why gamification is set to become an important tool in helping lower road traffic collision numbers in the UK.

For most of this century behavioural psychology has been conspicuously applied to almost every area of our lives.

From health care to commutingsupermarket displays and the urinals at Schiphol Airport, you (literally) can’t miss it.

In road safety too, the value and outcomes associated with applying behavioural science techniques stretches back decades. Painting one of the first ever centre lines and direction arrows on Dead Man’s Curve, Michigan, in 1917, for example, is said to have reduced vehicle collisions by over 75% within a matter of weeks.

Although technological advancements in vehicle safety have made great strides in reducing the UK’s stubbornly high road traffic collision statistics, designing interventions that address poor human behaviours – especially amongst younger drivers – remains a vital yet formidable task.

According to Deirdre O’Reilly of National Highways in her piece for British Safety Council  (Jan ‘24): “Sometimes people are unaware of their behaviour and the impact it has on others. People need a rational reason to change their behaviour and a clear instruction on what they can do to change [it]. But just telling people what to do and why is not enough. We need to address the barriers and motivators to them changing their behaviours.”

Dr Neale Kinnear, chartered psychologist and expert in driver behaviour, goes further: “It is crucial to embed behavioural science into the design of road safety interventions from the start. Doing this leverages our understanding of human behaviour to create engaging and effective content. For example, we can motivate individuals through rewards and positive reinforcement, making the intervention more impactful but also more enjoyable and likely to be adopted.”

Enter ‘gamification’: a strategy that harnesses elements of game design to encourage desired behaviours in non-game contexts. By integrating gamification principles and intrinsic motivators such as competition, achievement, social sharing and rewards into driving practices, it would suggest that the quantity and severity of traffic collisions in the UK could be reduced.

For instance… imagine a simple points-based system where you earn XP for smooth cornering and braking, adhering to speed limits and avoiding distractions whenever you drive. XP you can exchange for regular rewards from a wide range of brands you actually want. XP that shoots you up a work colleague league table and can be boosted by acing road safety quizzes. It’s an alluring idea, isn’t it? One that can create a sense of accomplishment and incentivise safer, more mindful driving practices.

It’s undeniable that mobile technology serves as a powerful engagement tool in today’s digital age. In the UK in 2024, 96% of 17-24 year olds own a smartphone and over half of adults up to the age of 44 regularly play games on their mobile device*. While it’s essential to acknowledge and address the enormous challenge mobile phones represent when it comes to the issue of distracted driving, it’s also impossible to ignore the extraordinary opportunity they offer. Apps equipped with GPS tracking and feedback can provide personalised insights into driving behaviour. By gamifying this data – turning it into rewards, challenges and social currency – drivers can be motivated to improve their performance continually.

It almost goes without saying, of course, that five non-negotiables are required of this kind of app-based tech to encourage complete trust and maximum uptake…

  1. It’s free for drivers to download and use.
  2. It boasts watertight data security and full GDPR compliance.
  3. The functionality and feedback cannot be accessed, used or shared while in a moving vehicle.
  4. Only safer driving is recognised and incentivised.
  5. The rewards are genuine, valuable and accessible.

Humans are inherently social beings and fostering a sense of community can often significantly influence better behaviours. Gamification can create virtual communities where drivers compete in friendly challenges and by tapping into social dynamics, individuals feel accountable not only to themselves but also to their peers. Positively leveraging the likes of FOMO and FOFU in this context has never been more opportune.

It’s not just direct incentives and social accountability to which gamification can offer a fresh approach, but learning and improvement too. Seamlessly incorporating positive micro-coaching into a gamified user experience can play a crucial role in road safety by offering personalised, timely feedback and guidance to drivers on specific behaviours or skills. Bite-sized video content, interactive modules and quizzes (to win more XP!) can all serve to educate drivers on road safety principles while keeping them actively engaged and rewarded.

This isn’t a one-hit, silver bullet solution, however. The success of gamification in helping promote safer driving relies on collaboration among an influential ecosystem of stakeholders – including road safety bodies, local government, socially conscious brands and technology providers (such as ourselves). Only by pooling resources and expertise over time, can we develop effective, scalable, gamified road safety initiatives that address diverse needs and preferences.

Bill Bland, president & CEO of Canadian road safety tech organisation, Medidas, the creators of the Safe Roads Challenge, speaks from experience: “While we’ve spent over five years researching, building, testing and refining our app, the truth is we couldn’t have achieved any of it without the support of the wider road safety and adjacent brand communities. It’s only through their support on the various pilots and rollouts across the US and Canada that we’ve been able to record nearly 2.5 million trips, 27 millions miles of driving and cut risk events by 27%. This is a complex long-term problem that requires multi-faceted long-term collaboration to get to the best possible long-term solutions.”

The implementation of gamification strategies in promoting safer driving has already shown promising results in studies and trials. Reduced speeding violations, fewer instances of distracted driving and improved compliance with traffic regulations are among the observed outcomes. A 2017 Australian study published in Science Direct concluded that: “Digital technologies and gamification offer an untapped opportunity to re-engage drivers in the safe-driving task and to create safety benefits. The studied intervention contributed to a significant reduction of speed and significantly improved anticipatory driving. We infer that gamification may increase and sustain attention and arousal throughout a drive.” The potential for further data, study and insight is yet another exciting aspect of this approach and the tech that enables it.

It would seem then that gamification offers a novel and attractive string in the road safety bow… but traction and adoption at scale by the wider road safety community and relevant brands is key to its success.

Carly Brookfield, CEO of the Driving Instructors Association, is encouraged by the future role of gamification in general, and the Safe Roads Challenge in particular: “I’m very excited to see some really well thought through gamification coming into road safety education, and something that has already been implemented successfully across the pond. I think the guys behind this have the correct approach of ensuring they harness the right expertise both in terms of the driver education inputs and gamification, as too often road safety interventions are poorly conceived and executed due to a lack of real knowledge of how to deliver from either a digital, marketing or driver education perspective. The drive to develop commercial partnerships that deliver meaningful incentives to the target audience is compelling too; you can’t just keep banging out interventions and campaigns expecting young people to engage purely from a perspective of social responsibility as the most risky young drivers are just not compelled by those motives.”

In conclusion… by leveraging behavioural psychology, technology and social dynamics, gamified interventions have the potential to transform driver behaviour, reduce traffic collisions and save lives. Through collaboration, innovation and a commitment to continuous improvement, gamification can pave the way for a safer, more responsible driving culture – one trip and one app download at a time.

We’ll leave the last word to the inspirational and tireless road safety campaigner, Meera Naran MBE, whose 8-year-old son Dev, died in a road traffic collision: “Smart tech gives us the opportunity for a new collaborative way of communicating in road safety. With the use of interactive apps, coupled with incentives and rewards, we can appeal to more people and be more inclusive to encourage safer driving. Knowing apps can disengage whilst driving will provide an additional layer of safety and reassurance. Plus, with the cost of insurance premiums rising, I hope to see some collaborative efforts with insurers to help support young drivers especially.

We couldn’t agree more.

For more information, check out www.saferoadschallenge.com/partners-uk or contact Paul Cope at paul.cope@saferoadschallenge.uk

Paul will also be presenting at the 2024 National Road Safety Conference. Click here to book to attend and here to see the latest agenda.


Leave a Reply