Danny Shaw, home affairs correspondent at the BBC, recently shared his experience of attending a driver awareness course, which left him asking the question - do driver awareness courses make roads safer?
In an article posted on the BBC website (link at the end of this article) Shaw states that he was serving a "sentence" for committing a minor motoring offence, which a CCTV camera caught him jumping a red light driving up the A10 in north London. He had a choice, accept a £100 fine and three penalty points or attend a driver awareness course called What's Driving Us?
In the three hours the course ran for, Shaw was subjected to discussions, presentations and role-play stating that he and 12 other guilty participants did not embrace the course "with any great enthusiasm".
At the start of the lesson Shaw and the other 12 members of the course (others guilty of jumping a red light, some caught on a mobile phone while behind the wheel) each confessed their sins, and for Shaw it felt as though the punishment was a good fit for the crime. He was hoping that the time would be spent getting useful motoring tips and be warned about the results of their bad driving that will play through his mind long after.
Shaw walked away after the three-hour course with one thing in his mind. That it was a wasted opportunity.
He mentions that the two instructors ticked all the right boxes on how to be when presenting; having the right mix of authority, knowledge and humour. However, he states that the course materials were lacking any real kind of thought provoking elements.
He left asking the questions: "Why weren't we shown any footage of the effects of driving through red lights, using a mobile and ignoring road signs? Couldn't we have heard from the victim of a car crash about the impact on them? Where was the account of a motoring offender who had learned the error of their ways?"
What was lacking in the course was material that would serve as a shock factor. Something to make the guilty party regret their actions. Instead, what did Shaw learn? Don't get caught.
Shaw said: "That driver awareness seminar should have stuck in my memory like the image of a blackened lung tissue from the anti-smoking session I went to at school some 35 years ago."
Looking at the wider picture, there is a lack of evidence on the impact of driver awareness and speed reduction courses. With 1.4 million people attending courses last year, more people chose to take this route to deal with their motoring offence, as in 2014, 591,000 people chose to take the fine and the points on their licence.
The National Driver Offender Retraining Scheme (NDORS) state that the programmes are designed by a group of police officers, transport academics, psychologists and road safety experts, basing the schemes on the latest research making them "fit for purpose".
Back in 2011, the chief police officers' association stated that there were "positive changes in attitudes" among motorists who had been on a speed awareness course. Even though a study published by the Department for Transport in 2005 suggested there had been "modest improvement towards safe driving" it also stated that they did not have "reliable evidence that this translates into improved driving performance on the road".
The road safety courses have received "many accolades" according to NDORS, and in 2012 it won the Prince Michael International Road Safety premier award.
NDORS says: "We are not naive enough to think that the courses will stop all negative driving behaviour for all attendees, so our desired outcome is to try and re-educate as many as possible."
Shaw points out that even though the organisation boasts a "98% of first-time offenders do no reoffend over a five-year period" it is unclear where those figures have been generating from and there is "no control group of drivers who received different sanctions for the same misdemeanours, to make the data meaningful."
NDORS admit that they don't know how the course compares as to those who decide to receive the penalty points and the fine. Which out of the two groups displayed better driving after they had completed their safety course or paid their fine.
Shaw mentions that the Transport Research Laboratory made him aware of a project that was carried out last year looking into the effectiveness of range of roads policing strategies.
Whilst it was one of the "most comprehensive" studies Shaw has come across (the report was 175 pages long) it still consisted of "a number of gaps in the evidence", stating that the impact of the National Speed Awareness Course is "broadly unknown".
Through Shaw's experience he says that officials appear to accept that there needs to be improvements in evidence that supports the impact of motoring courses.
A DfT spokesperson said: "An evaluation of speed awareness courses is being carried out for us and the Road Safety Trust, and will be published in due course".
To read Danny Shaw's article please click here