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GPS Study Shows Drivers Will Slow Down, At A Cost

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Some 12,000 Americans die every year in traffic crashes caused by speeding, according to government statistics. Officials have tried many strategies to get drivers to slow down. And now they might have found something that works, after researchers placed a GPS device inside cars that gives drivers an incentive not to speed.

Traffic safety experts have tried using big flashing signs to tell you how fast you're going. (The psychological subtext: Drivers are rational, and they will slow down if they know how fast they're going.)

When that didn't work, they tried putting cops on your tail. (Subtext: If you make the penalty for speeding large enough, drivers will slow down.)

When that failed, they installed hidden speeding cameras on major roads. (If you don't know when you're being watched, you're more likely to drive cautiously all the time.)

The next iteration of the battle between speedsters and authorities may involve putting the cop right inside your car — and a psychologist in the back seat.

Researchers have found that a small GPS-based device that constantly measures the speed of a car against the posted speed limit can slow drivers down, if it's paired with the right financial incentive.

In a "proof-of-concept" experiment partly funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, researchers found that drivers slow down dramatically when they are promised a $25 prize at the end of each week of safe driving.

The catch: Every time the test subjects went five to eight mph above the speed limit, they lost 3 cents from their prize. And every time they went nine or more mph above the speed limit, they lost 6 cents.

"We found that the incentive system was incredibly effective in getting drivers to reduce their speeding," says Ian Reagan, a traffic safety researcher at NHTSA. "Egregious speed limit violations were almost eliminated — that's driving nine or more [miles per hour] over the speed limit."

Reagan thinks the drivers slowed down because of both carrot and stick: the prize at the end of the week for good driving, and the small penalties for speeding.

For decades now, psychological studies have suggested that people are vigilant about small, accumulating losses — the so-called "ticking meter" phenomenon. But there could be another factor involved. For some drivers, Reagan said, the challenge of "beating the game" could offer an incentive to slow down.

"At least one driver said they made a game out of it," he says. "They wanted to see if they could keep that incentive amount of $25."

Reagan thinks insurance companies might one day offer the tracking devices to drivers who wish to lower their premiums. Many companies currently offer rebates for good driving behavior.

Unlike the way insurance rebates are currently configured, the devices Reagan and his colleagues used gave drivers real-time feedback — every time drivers turned off the ignition, they were informed about the "cost" of that trip.

Stay tuned for that call from your friendly agent.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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