Riddle Me This, Riddle Me That: What Does Dog Training Have to Do With Traffic Enforcement?


Recently I mentioned on my Facebook page that I thought there was far too little reinforcement for good, responsible drivers. We punish the wrong-doers but do not acknowledge those conscientious drivers who keep the roads safe with good driving behavior.

Variable reinforcement schedules are the most effective way to build strong, reliable behaviors. This got me to thinking recently, in what way could this scientifically-proven training technique be used to modify our own behavior for the greater good of people?

One of the most interesting facets of human behavior is driving behavior. Reinforcement and punishment contingencies influence speeding, road rage, seatbelt wearing, and stopping (or going) at stop signs, yield signs, and traffic lights. I imagined a traffic regulation system that offered on the principals I employ in dog training.

Variable reinforcement of desirable behaviors: I would implement a variable rewards system for law-abiding drivers.

How great would it be, after a long day at the office, to be pulled over and given a $100 bill for obeying your seat belt?

Get pulled over for obeying the speed limit - 30% off your insurance policy next year!

What if you were a designated driver and received $25 for each friend you transported home safely?

$10 for each person in the car wearing seatbelts?

$10 for an up-to-date inspection?

What if you received a $25 parking ticket - for having the best parallel parking job on the block?

Perhaps a free vanity plate for every year you are a law-abiding driver?

Maybe a discount on license renewals or DMV fees for safe, conscientious drivers?

Free coupon for coffee or doughnut at Dunkin' Donuts for each person who obeys the speed limit in a construction zone?

Stopped for a rest on a long drive as opposed to sleeping at the wheel? Free breakfast for the driver at a local diner!

There is little likelihood that any of these policies would be implemented by law enforcement. Dog training is a reflection of our larger culture, a culture which demands punishment and harsh consequences. How do we deal with serious traffic violations? The same way we'd modify a behavior problem. Since traffic violations and speeding are self-reinforcing, we cannot use extinction to modify the behavior.

  • Manage the environment - take away driving privileges immediately so that the offender does not have the opportunity to engage in undesirable behavior.
  • Train alternative, incompatible behavior - instruct in proper driving practices, reinforce when criteria is met. Initially, wanted behavior (sober driving) should be put on a continuous reinforcement schedule. Once the behavior is reliable, introduce intermittent, variable rewards.
  • Implement Premack - in one of its interpretations, Premack can be interpreted as NLIF (Nothing in Life Is Free) - opportunity to receive reinforcement should be a reward for desirable behaviors. This is a great reinforcement contingency, you only get to drive if you blow sober through a Sober Steering system. Worried about fraud? Require drunk drivers to purchase cameras with Skype for the car. The opportunity to drive becomes a reinforcement for sobriety.

If any of these consequences are too expensive, we can give out tickets for good behavior and let an accumulation of tickets represent an increased value. Meter-readers can put tickets for good behavior on windshields of well-parked cars. Value? 5 tickets. 25 tickets for drivers that go the speed limit. 100 tickets for designated drivers, 50 tickets for each intoxicated passenger that was responsible enough to find a safe ride home. 50 tickets to a driver wearing her seatbelt, 25 tickets to each seatbelt wearing passenger. Since I'm a dog lover, let's give 50 tickets for the first pet who is safely restrained in the car and not a danger to themselves, the driver, passengers, or other travelers. 20 tickets for each additional safe pet.

These tickets could then be cumulative and used to earn rewards for conscientious behavior.

Would negative punishment be effective in addressing driving faux pas? You bet! Negative punishment is an effective way to address self-reinforcing behaviors like speeding or illegal parking. Far fewer people would run traffic lights if it meant losing their car keys. What if speeding meant losing your car keys for a week?

The problems with conventional traffic control procedures and mechanisms are as follows:

Punishment occurs intermittently - while some offenders are punished, many more "get away" with the behavior without consequence. Punishment is only effective when it occurs simultaneously or immediately following the unwanted behavior, each time the behavior occurs. If you are not punishing each incident of behavior, you are putting the behavior on a variable reinforcement schedule. Incidentally, this is the best way to strengthen behavior!

Bad timing - punishment is often late. All effective behavior modification is based on timing. If a traffic camera catches you running a red light and a ticket is mailed to you 6 - 8 weeks later, the punishment is less effective than if you were "caught in the act" and punished immediately.

Punishment only works in the presence of the punisher - How many of you have been speeding while driving only to sight a traffic officer in the distance and immediately reduce your speed to within the stated limit? Of the guilty respondents, how many of you resume your speeding behavior when said officer is out of sight? How many of you find devious ways to avoid punishment for unlawful traffic behavior through use of radar detectors? "When the cat is away, the mice will play."

This will likely never happen, as punishment, even when its not effective, is firmly entrenched in many cultural values. Regardless, a girl can dream!

How would you implement operant conditioning protocols to improve driver performance and traffic safety? Please share in the comments!

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