Applying behavioural science to passenger safety
A top priority for all transport operators is, of course, ensuring passenger (and colleague) safety. An integral and essential part of any passenger safety strategy is to have communications and interventions in place that raise passenger awareness of risk, and motivate them to prioritise their own safety. Identifying, ideating and implementing these interventions is one thing, having passengers put their own wellbeing at heart is often a much bigger ask.
This is where behavioural science principles come in to play. By leveraging behavioural insights, transport operators can encourage passengers to keep their own safety top of mind, which benefits everyone. Let’s take a look at the key principles, with some examples in action:
1. Social norms
Social norms refer to the unwritten rules and expectations that guide human behaviour in a given social context. Research has shown that people are more likely to adopt desired behaviours when they see them role-modelled by those around them. For example, a study of passenger safety behaviours on escalators in a subway station in Rome found that passengers were more likely to adopt safe behaviours on the escalator when they observed fellow passengers doing the same1.
2. Default bias
Default bias is the tendency for people to stick with their default option, even if it’s not necessarily the best choice. These default behaviours have become automatic and habitual through repetition. Transport operators can leverage this principle to encourage passengers to choose the safest options by presenting it as the default.
3. Loss aversion
Loss aversion is the idea that people are inherently more motivated to avoid losses than they are to achieve the equivalent gains, since the negative psychological impact of the loss is felt much more than the positive boost from a win. In fact, losses can be twice as powerful as gains. The Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety found that passengers in the US were more likely to wear seatbelts on public transport when they were presented with the message on loss that “not wearing a seatbelt could result in a $200 fine” rather than “wearing a seatbelt could save your life.”
4. Environmental changes
This approach uses small changes in the environment to subtly influence safety behaviours. For example, an Australian study found that the use of simple, contextual signage on buses, reminding passengers to hold onto handrails and keep aisles clear, was effective in promoting significantly improved safety behaviours2.
5. Feedback loops
People are more likely to continue a behaviour when they receive reinforcing feedback on its effectiveness. For example, New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority uses a system allowing passengers to report safety issues directly from a mobile app. This immediate feedback loop enables a quick response to safety concerns, which effectively ‘rewards’ passengers for their involvement, while helping to increase awareness and education around safe behaviours.
Putting it into practice
These core behavioural principles, among many others, inform our own work with a number of clients on passenger safety.
For example, a recent project with Network Rail focused on reducing passenger slips, trips and falls in and around Manchester Piccadilly station. Having identified the core risky behaviours through ethnographic observation of passengers, we used a behavioural design approach to define the barriers and motivations at play, and pinpoint the key inflection points for targeted interventions. One key recommendation was to leverage environmental changes and default bias, by installing more salient signage to persuade passengers with luggage to default to the station’s lifts instead of its escalators.
We’re also working the Govia Thameslink Railway to help reduce the frequency of passengers rushing to station platforms. Key observations included that passenger rushing behaviour was often triggered by the behaviour of others (negative social norming), and that there was scope for more static and dynamic communications aimed at dissuading the undesired behaviours. Our recommendations included encouraging and rewarding passengers for slowing down on their journey (positive feedback loops), using salient signage to alert passengers to the very real dangers of rushing (loss aversion), and modifying station layout through the use of temporary installations to encourage walking rather than running (environmental changes).
If you have a passenger safety or other behavioural challenge, we’d love to talk with you about it. In the meantime you can read more about our work with the travel and transport sector here, and our wider safety and wellbeing experience here.
- Social Norms and Safety on Public Transport: An Experimental Study on Escalators”, by Tobia Fattore and others, Safety Science, 2018.
- “Using Social Norms and Nudges to Promote Pro-Environmental Behaviours in Public Transport” by Susana Mourato, Nick Hanley, and Ece Ozdemiroglu.