Research & reports

Title: The role of empathy through storytelling in young driver road safety education

Organisation: University of Sunderland
Date uploaded: 6th June 2018
Date published/launched: May 2018

Road Sense Common Sense is an emergency services multi-partner young driver road safety presentation provided by police, fire and ambulance in the north east of England. It takes a format similar to presentations seen around the country, such as Safe Drive Stay Alive and Wasted Lives. It is a short film, live speaker, staged presentation delivered to sixth form students within their own schools. Introduced by a host, four short films based on real and local cases recall stories of serious injury and fatal collisions, as told by families affected by them. These films are interspersed with ten minute story telling pieces delivered in person by a police traffic officer, fire officer and paramedic who all relive their encounters with avoidable, serious and fatal young driver collisions. The Road Sense presentation aims not only to raise the profile of road safety amongst this vulnerable group, but also to promote better decision making through reflective accounts and authentic stories. No graphic or ‘gory’ images are used in this presentation.

Evolution of research
The project lead, Jami Blythe, began a piece of research in 2015 which examined the engagement of the young audience with the short films and speakers featured in the Road Sense presentation. Using evaluations immediately after the presentations, a slight preference towards the stories told by the live speakers was observed, with in some cases twice the number of students finding the speakers more impactive than the short films. Literature regarding empathy, storytelling and health communications was then explored to provide a basis for further research, in order to explore the potential of real stories used in the young driver road safety field as a learning approach. Focus discussion groups were then held with three groups of students to explore what aspects of the presentation they could recall, what reflective impact they carried, and whether they had engaged in better decision making around travelling in vehicles with friends. It was during one of the focus discussion groups that a student revealed that he had felt a ‘lump in [his] throat’ whilst watching the Road Sense presentation. The experience of many students had been a physical feeling in some cases, as they revealed how they felt during certain aspects of the storytelling experience. The presence of discrete emotions (Myrick, 2015) such as sadness were discussed.

Data gathering
Three speakers from the Road Sense presentation were then interviewed to explore their motivations behind their part in the presentation, why they had chosen their particular stories to tell and their observations of the students as they spoke. Some recalled physical movements by the students as they spoke, some crying, some sitting with their mouths open. These observations revealed a thread of research by Nabi (2003), a contributor to health communication research, who suggests a five-step pathway occurs in any health communication; 1) a cognitive appraisal of the situation, 2) physiological arousal, 3) motor expressions, 4) motivation to change behaviour or habits, 5) subjective feeling state.

Three focus discussion groups and three semi-structured interviews were then coded (Barbour, 2014) to identify main themes across the data. A stage of further coding (Barbour, 2014; Saldana, 2016) then took place to reveal a series of sub-theme codes. A method known as simple counting (Silverman, 1993) then took place, to reveal the most commonly occurring sub-themes across the data gathered.

Research approach
A semi-grounded theory approach was then taken to set these findings against existing literature and discussed using vignettes from the focus discussion groups and semi-structured interviews, to reveal three main findings of this research:

1. Emotional time travel – the use of empathy as a learning tool
2. Challenging the mindset ‘it won’t happen to me’
3. Using real stories over fiction is key

A new model research model (Blythe, 2017) is offered to outline the approach taken in this work-based project, utilising theory from action research (McNiff, 2013) and grounded theory (Charmaz, 2014) and short, medium and long-term opportunities for further research and dissemination (Fulton et al, 2013).

Conclusion of findings
‘Situational empathy’ (Stueber, 2013) is nurtured when injected with enough human feeling by a narrator who is not afraid to express their own emotions. The students were able to recognise their own discrete emotions and feel the physical symptoms of sadness. The concept of ‘mirroring’ (Gallese, 1918), has long been cited in the field of empathy research and was evident as the speakers and students experienced the same emotions during the storytelling pieces. The lack of personal experiences by the students, due to their young age, were replaced by the stories they heard from others, enabling them to build their own ‘schemas’ (Decety, 2012) through this ‘episodic’ (Guttman, 2012) experience. The students were given an emotional time travel ‘passport’ to utilise their imaginations (Cooper, 2011) and project themselves into their own possible stories, not yet lived (Decety, 2012). Optimism bias is a recognised phenomenon among young drivers. Due their biological and neurological stage of development, their ‘brain in transition’ (Vermeersch et al, 2008) we know that young drivers are more prone to taking risks. The use of reflective thinking, personal experiences and the depiction of life as relevant to the group (Box and Wengraf, 2013) all offer potential to young driver road safety education.

Final words
Road safety educators should not shy away from what some may perceive to be ‘sentimental and woolly’ (Cooper, 2011) methods of storytelling (Alterio, 2003; Moon, 2010), but should embrace the potential of these authentic accounts. What the students in this study found most valuable, most credible and most engaging were the recollections of those who told honest and authentic tales of their experience. In times of financial austerity, storytelling can be recognised as a legitimate learning approach (Koch, 1998; Flanaghan, 2014) to develop a greater understanding of experience and therefore behaviour change.

The research concludes with a set of six recommendations to the road safety community, based on the findings and literature reviewed;

1. Embrace the experience of others, such as those from emergency services.
2. Identify narrators who can ‘be themselves’ and are not concerned with finger pointing or lecturing.
3. Value the reflective ability of young students by depicting life as relevant to them.
4. Hard hitting images and gore are not necessary, nor are they effective.
5. Offering a broad menu of stories from which the students can choose can replace task orientated messages such as ‘don’t drink and drive’.
6. Big budgets are not necessary – the value lies in the content of real stories, not in flashy camera work or Hollywood sets.

For more information contact:
Dr Jami Blythe

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