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Am J Public Health. 2010 November; 100(11): 2052–2058.
PMCID: PMC2951929

Utilization of Research in Policymaking for Graduated Driver Licensing

Abstract

Young drivers are overrepresented in road trauma and vehicle-related deaths, and there is substantial evidence for the effectiveness of graduated driver licensing (GDL) policies that minimize young drivers’ exposure to high-risk driving situations. However, it is unclear what role research plays in the process of making GDL policies.

To understand how research is utilized in this context, we interviewed influential GDL policy actors in Australia and the United States. We found that GDL policy actors generally believed that research evidence informed GDL policy development, but they also believed that research was used to justify politically determined policy positions that were not based on evidence.

Further efforts, including more effective research dissemination strategies, are required to increase research utilization in policy.

Young drivers (aged 17-25 years) are overrepresented in road trauma, and vehicle-related crashes are a leading cause of death among young people.1,2 Governments in many high-income countries, including Australia and the United States, have addressed this problem by developing graduated driver licensing (GDL) systems.1 GDL systems minimize young drivers’ exposure to high-risk driving situations and may use any of a variety of policies, such as minimum age of licensing and speed limitations. Research has shown that such systems can be very effective in reducing crashes and injuries, although their effectiveness depends on the inclusion of several key factors.3

Restrictions on night driving and on the ages of passengers are among the most effective ways to reduce crash involvement.4 However, policymakers in many states and jurisdictions have opposed these restrictions for a number of political (e.g., electoral support) and ideological reasons, and because of concerns regarding the legitimacy of using evaluations from other jurisdictions to determine appropriate policies.5 Such widespread governmental opposition to these restrictions indicates that, despite the prominence of evidence-based arguments in GDL policy discourse,6 the creation of policy is mediated by a variety of other factors that have nothing to do with evidence.

An approach to policymaking that utilizes technical rationality and is based on evidence would strive to make effective use of scientific research, the better to maximize the societal benefits resulting from policy implementation.7 However, policies in various public sectors throughout the world are infrequently based on research evidence.710 This discrepancy has been identified as a serious issue demanding urgent attention.11 Such disparity between the rhetoric and the reality of evidence-based policy has generated a body of literature aiming to increase the transparency of policymaking processes by identifying factors preventing12 and facilitating13 research utilization. These findings have been pooled into a number of significant reviews,7,14,15 and on the basis of these reviews several frameworks have been developed to explain research utilization in policymaking.16–19 The diversity of these frameworks demonstrates the difficulty of understanding this complex phenomenon and articulating explanations that may be applicable to different policy contexts.

To our knowledge, no study to date has examined research utilization within the context of road-safety policy or novice-driver policy, despite such a study's potential to identify critical points of resistance to evidence-informed policies and to reveal strategies to encourage their adoption. We aimed to fill this knowledge gap by seeking out individuals involved in GDL policy and asking them their opinions regarding research utilization in GDL policymaking.

METHODS

From 2004 through 2008, the Australian states of New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, and Queensland engaged in protracted policymaking processes involving night driving and passenger restrictions as parts of GDL policies. Yet despite considerable advocacy by various stakeholders, including researchers,6 none of the policies introduced in these states reflected the best practices identified in the GDL literature.1,20 Thus, these policymaking processes offer ideal real-life examples of the barriers to and facilitators of research utilization in GDL policy.

Our study was primarily situated in the Australian context, but GDL policy debates involving night driving and passenger restrictions have received a similarly high level of attention in the United States. Therefore, the inclusion of a US state in the study offered the opportunity to assess the relevance of the results outside the Australian context and identify key themes relevant in both national contexts. We decided to include Pennsylvania because passenger restrictions received significant attention in that state during the time when we were considering the inclusion of a US state. Our Pennsylvanian participants identified the important role of federal advocacy and research groups in state-based decision-making, so we conducted several interviews in Washington, DC, to gain further insights.

To learn more about these policymaking processes, we interviewed people who had participated in the processes. We developed our pool of potential interviewees by first listing the key groups and individuals involved in the novice driver policy arena. We created this list on the basis of an analysis of transcripts of parliamentary debates and committee hearings, newspaper articles, and other online information identifying the road safety policymaking structures in each state. The analysis permitted us to identify as potential interviewees 8 to 10 key individuals in each state from among the following groups: politicians, senior public servants (including those from jurisdictional licensing authorities and other relevant government agencies), insurance and motoring organizations, researchers, media, police, road safety, victim rights advocates, and youth rights advocates. Each of these groups and individuals had direct impact on formal GDL policymaking processes or on relevant community debate that could influence policy decisions.

We invited our potential interviewees to participate in this study, and we provided them with study information, including assurances of confidentiality. Eighty-four percent of our invitees agreed to participate. We conducted a 1-hour semistructured interview with each of our 48 participants. The interviews took place from August 2007 through December 2009.

The interview guide was adapted from the RAPID Context, Evidence and Links framework for analysis.21 The main interview topics were: policymaker demand for research, opportunities for research input into policymaking structures, types and quality of research evidence, relative effectiveness of different research dissemination strategies, barriers to and facilitators of research utilization, and strategies to increase research utilization in policymaking. Interviews were transcribed and then categorized using NVivo version 7 textual reference software (QSR International, Doncaster, Victoria, Australia), allowing us to identify the key themes emerging from interviewee responses. Relevant quotes were used to exemplify critical emergent study themes found to be applicable in both Australian and US policymaking contexts.

RESULTS

Despite the differences among interviewees, their responses exhibited minimal variation, and the most critical emergent interview themes remained constant.

Structures, Actors, and Networks Influencing Policy

Although interviewees named several federal agencies that influenced GDL policy in Australia and the United States, all interviewees said that policy decision-making was largely controlled by politicians and senior public servants from the lead road safety agency of each state. The authority of the minister responsible for road safety in each Australian state was particularly emphasized, and American interviewees identified the importance of state legislators acting as the main sponsors of bills regulating novice drivers.

Interviewees identified several additional important decision-making bodies, such as road safety councils, that were composed of representatives from various government agencies (e.g., health, education) and that sometimes included influential interest groups (e.g., motoring organizations) and research experts. Interviewees suggested that these interagency bodies provided opportunities for research information to be circulated among disparate policy actors. Road safety conferences and influential research and policy networks unrelated to formal policymaking structures were also identified as ways to link members of the wider policy community, including researchers and policymakers from different states and countries. All interviewees from influential policy groups suggested that these networks helped ensure that the relatively small community involved in crafting policy for young drivers would remain open to new ideas.

Politicians and chief executive officers of key state government agencies were described as “regularly fluctuating,” whereas middle-level managers, professional advocates, and research experts were described as being “here for the long haul,” with their expertise significantly utilized in drafting policy. This long-term involvement was identified as a facilitator of the development of personal relationships among key policy actors, including public servants and researchers. Interviewees said these informal channels provided a way for research and other types of information to freely circulate.

Demand for Research

All interviewees suggested that GDL policy is generally evidence-based, and they supported this claim by citing the relationship between increasingly positive evaluations in the scientific literature and its diffusion throughout Australia, New Zealand, North America, and much of Europe over the past decade.1 They said they believed that this evidence-based policymaking culture had fostered significant demand for research among individuals and groups seeking to affect GDL policy, such as policymakers, motoring organizations, advocacy groups, and some journalists.

Nonetheless, participants from all included groups of influential policy actors claimed that research evidence did not in itself determine policy because other political factors (e.g., electoral support of policy alternatives) and ideological factors (e.g., civil liberties) influenced decisions. In support of this claim, they cited the fact that either night-time restrictions or passenger restrictions—but not both—had been introduced in each state referred to in the study: New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, and Pennsylvania.

Uses, Quality, and Funding of Data and Research on Novice Drivers

Several types of data were described as influencing GDL policy, including information used for problem identification and agenda setting,22 such as crash, enforcement, and hospitalization data. Although public servants and interviewees from other influential groups generally argued that policy was not “driven by crook statistics,” all interviewees said that such data were frequently manipulated by policy actors emphasizing specific features of the findings (e.g., brief spikes in road trauma despite long-term downward trends) to produce “startling statistics”23(p161) designed to initiate or block policy reform.

Research that assessed community attitudes (e.g., public consultation) was identified as influential because of its utility in assessing policy alternatives from a political perspective. As a professional road safety advocate explained, “There's nothing a minister likes more than when you say, ‘Here's the policy. By the way, everyone loves it.’”

Most importantly, all interviewees represented evaluation research as a key battleground in policy debates. Interviewees particularly noted the difficulty of evaluating the effectiveness of specific GDL components when introduced as elements of larger packages: “You can't provide exact estimations of, ‘If you introduce this policy, it [the road toll] will drop by this much,’” an American advocate complained. Such issues were mentioned by all interviewees as evidence of the generally poor quality of GDL evaluation research, with an Australian researcher explaining, “The quality of the work is not particularly good… . We need better-quality studies because many are so flawed you can't make reasonable conclusions about whether something works.” Previous studies have identified GDL research quality issues as an obstacle to meta-analyses assessing the precise level of effectiveness of specific GDL models.1,24

All nongovernmental interviewees said that GDL research may be produced for predetermined political purposes. Government-funded research was often described as a political strategy aiming to reduce community demand for policy reform by representing government as proactively engaging in an evidence-based policy reform process. As a professional advocate suggested, “Research is often commissioned … to either procrastinate or delay decisions. You've seen, ‘Yes, Minister … yeah, we're doing something. We're looking at it. Let's get a report.’” This issue represented the clearest division between the responses of interviewees from different groups of policy actors, with government representatives vigorously denying this contention.

Nongovernmental interviewees explained that this politicization of research impairs research quality because it results in the issuance of short-term “Mickey Mouse soft money” government contracts to investigate the politically determined priority issues of policymakers. Interviewees said the current dominance of this funding model in Australia and the United States was a major barrier to research utilization because it prevented the development of larger research studies with broad policy implications, and it directed researcher attention toward gaining new funding contracts rather than increasing the quality of research outputs (Table 1) . A researcher in Victoria put it this way:

TABLE 1
Barriers to and Facilitators of Research Utilization in Young Driver Policy, by Influential Policy Actors: Selected States in Australia and the United States, 2007–2009

The government decides what it wants to purchase… . The trouble is, it's not so much that they're commissioning research but commissioning consultancies… . Once the government has determined the issue, we go out and do investigations, but the fundamental research—about what the options are that could be considered in the first place—perhaps isn't being done… . There isn't as much input from the researchers as there might be.

Research Dissemination

Interviewees said the method by which research was disseminated largely determined its use in policymaking. Several researchers and public servants argued that “the currency of road-safety information has changed,” in that research is increasingly published in peer-reviewed journals generally accessible only to other researchers instead of being disseminated through mediums more accessible to policymakers, such as conferences and government reports. Interviewees said this change had occurred because of the growth of large road-safety research institutes, whose focus is more academically oriented than policy-oriented.

Researchers said the move toward peer-reviewed publications was slowly improving the quality of GDL research, but they and interviewees from other influential groups of policy actors argued that this shift was nonetheless problematic, because policymakers may not have the time or expertise to monitor these sources. All interviewees said that the extent of individual researchers’ dissemination efforts was largely determined by the degree to which policy impact formed part of a research institute's organizational vision.

The presentation of research emerged as critical. A public servant in Pennsylvania described the main goal as “being receiver-oriented in any communication. So what do they want to know?” The provision of clear and succinct policy-relevant advice was particularly emphasized by professional advocates, public servants, and motoring organization representatives, with a professional road safety advocate arguing that when communicating research to policymakers, it is most important “to get from 120 pages of data down to 1 page of 5 simple bullet points that explain, ‘If we do this, here's the problem, here's the remedy, here's the likely benefit.’” However, interviewees who were not researchers generally described researchers as unwilling to produce such summaries. As an Australian professional road safety advocate explained, “They get defensive … [because] it's hard when you've lived and breathed the report to get it down to three main points.”

Government representatives further suggested that research was “the base level in a pyramid of decision-making.” As a legislator commented, “While overseas evidence is important, you need more than research on your side if you're going to bring the community and politicians with you.” Therefore, interviewees claimed that in addition to clearly laying out the research, effective dissemination required attention to broader factors of political interest, apart from the road safety literature. A public servant explained that such factors may include “whether it's workable, whether you can bring something in that sounds good, that's practical enough to be administered and supported by the community.”

Barriers to Research Utilization

Interviewees identified several critical barriers to research utilization (Table 1). In their assessments of formal policymaking structures, motoring organization representatives, various professional advocates, and researchers (including some with previous bureaucratic experience) represented public servants as information filters who only provided superiors with research supporting politically feasible policy alternatives, such as policies that enjoyed significant community support. As an Australian researcher with bureaucratic experience explained,

There is a tendency for the bureaucratic policymakers to apply a perspective based on their interpretation of what their minister or even their boss within the department will think… . We unfortunately have politicized the public service.

All interviewees said that disseminating research to the community via the media was just as important as dissemination to policymakers. As a public servant explained:

The political process is influenced by what politicians think the electorate wants, and that's influenced strongly by what the media says… . So the media does tend to marshal arguments which have an influence on the way that things are discussed by the public and the way that they're discussed by politicians.

All interviewees said the media sometimes assisted advocates of evidence-based policy reform by stimulating and reinvigorating community interest and debate regarding young drivers. However, they also said that media reporting may largely ignore research that may be relevant to policy debates if that research is perceived as having limited appeal to audiences. Interviewees who supported evidence-based GDL reform suggested that these media-related issues were exemplified by the policy processes surrounding night-time and passenger restrictions in each state: media reporting has highlighted the unacceptable level of road trauma involving novice drivers and the need for government action, yet media outlets have granted less attention to research evidence supporting competing policy alternatives.6

A researcher cited this generally ill-informed style of media reporting as a reason why researchers needed to

put forward a broader base of information … [because] in the absence of such activities, you don't have a researcher or research evidence being brought to the table [in policy debates].

Motoring organization representatives, journalists, professional advocates, and several researchers suggested that using emotive images (e.g., crashed cars, mass funerals) and linking these to “startling scientific statistics”23 and nonscientific but policy-relevant types of information (e.g., victims’ tragic anecdotes) facilitated the communication of research to a lay audience via the media. These media advocacy strategies were seen as encouraging more evidence-informed GDL policy debates and increasing community support for evidence-informed policy alternatives.25

DISCUSSION

Research-utilization literature most commonly involves interviews with policymakers and researchers from single states or jurisdictions.26 To prevent the results of this study from being overly reliant on the interpretations of any single group of policy actors, we created a much more varied sample, drawing participants from different states and countries. This allowed us to conduct a more holistic analysis by triangulating the interview data.27 Our strategy also enabled us to discover differences of opinion between government representatives and other influential groups of policy actors regarding the existence of bureaucratic filtering of policy-relevant information and ideal research funding models in both the Australian and US contexts. Nonetheless, other major relevant themes remained similar across all included groups of policy actors, indicating both their broad acceptance and their likely relevance in all GDL policy settings in both Australia and the United States.

Studies situated in other policy sectors have found minimal research utilization in policy,7,2830 but our results show that individuals involved in GDL policy debates and processes believed that policy decisions were generally “evidence-informed.”31(p20) However, this result may partially reflect the qualitative nature of our assessment of research utilization; interviewees may have believed it more appropriate to indicate that they used, rather than ignored, research in their policymaking activities.

Although interviewees said research was predominantly used instrumentally to determine the causes and potential solutions for the problems of young drivers, participants from all included groups also argued that policy actors may use research tactically to justify politically determined policy positions.17 As with other policy areas, research evidence and expertise constituted valuable currency in modern GDL policy discourse, with the scientific community, motoring organizations, and relevant government departments acting as the major suppliers of the necessary “intellectual ammunition.”32(p35)

A critical issue within debates over the policy implications of research evidence is whether appropriate research utilization involves a high level of fidelity (accurate replication of interventions from one context to another) as opposed to some level of adaptation being required for effective outcomes in different contexts.9 As it is impracticable for high-quality research evaluations of the effectiveness of complex interventions to exist for every setting, reasonable translation and interpretation of research findings from one setting to another is required to produce effective policies. This issue has particular relevance in assessing whether the versions of night-time or passenger restrictions introduced in the states under study represent effective research utilization, given their divergence from best-practice models because of practicality and political concerns.20

Policy Affected by Many Factors, Including Evidence

Such policy deviations from research evidence indicate that despite evidence-based rhetoric, GDL policy is affected by a range of other factors. As a senior public servant commented, “It boils down to what the research evidence is telling you, what the practicality of your system allows you to do, and what we interpret from the community as being initiatives they think are workable.” Therefore, research represents only a single piece of the GDL “policymaking puzzle,”33 with its applicability to local settings a critical influence on policymaker rationale.

The GDL policy context involves significant community and media attention because of the emotionality attached to road trauma involving young drivers. The resulting social atmosphere inevitably influences politicians, who hold actual policymaking power. Thus, political rationales are the most critical mediator of research utilization in GDL policy. Yet, as Frommer and Rychetnik have suggested,34 although policy decisions may be dominated by political factors, research evidence may nonetheless inform policy debates. Therefore, regardless of the inescapable influence of politics on GDL decision-making identified in this study, efforts to increase research utilization in policy by facilitating more evidence-informed policy debates remains a valid strategy for those aiming to reduce road trauma involving young drivers.

Despite the presence of an evidence-based policymaking culture and close links between researchers and other policy actors, individuals involved in GDL policy debates and processes identified several barriers to increased research utilization. Many of these barriers—including poor research quality, an overreliance on peer-reviewed publications as the main form of research dissemination, and ineffective research funding models—have been identified in other policy settings, with a particular emphasis on the need for improved methods of disseminating research to policymakers and the community.9,35 Higher-quality evaluation research and, in particular, more effective communication of research to policymakers have been found to increase research utilization in other policy contexts.9 Interviewees suggested that these strategies are also likely to be capable of improving existing GDL policymaking systems in Australia and the United States. Thus, our findings confirm the contention of Lomas16a that greater “linkage and exchange”16b between researchers and policymakers may represent an effective method of improving policymaking systems.

Our findings indicate that researcher engagement in effective media advocacy may facilitate adoption of evidence-based strategies, given the influence of community perceptions on policymaker rationales and the high media profile of issues related to young drivers.20 Therefore, in addition to the production of high-quality research and the communication of research results to policymakers, effective utilization of research in policy may also require researchers to use the media to communicate their findings to audiences outside the scientific and political communities.

Media reporting on GDL issues tends to highlight nonscientific information,25 so it may be beneficial for GDL policy actors to frame research to render it meaningful and legitimate for nonresearcher audiences.36,37 Studies situated in other policy contexts have found that linking “startling statistics”23(p161) and tragic victim anecdotes with research on effective prevention strategies may help initiate reform processes by highlighting opportunities for the introduction of evidence-informed policies that may be controversial but that are likely to be effective.37 Because of the prominence of various practical, political, and research issues within GDL policy discourse,6 linking evaluation and public consultation research to moral arguments (e.g., community demand for government to introduce evidence-based policies to ensure the safety of our children) when debating policy alternatives may also facilitate effective research dissemination.37

Conclusions

Although studies in other policy sectors have found minimal utilization of research in policy,7,2830 individuals involved in policy debates and processes generally perceived GDL policy to be evidence-informed, although they felt that various factors, including policymaker perceptions of community support for policy alternatives, mediated research utilization in policy. The use of standardized measures to assess the impacts of those factors may help verify the self-reports of interviewees and determine the relative influence of such key factors in different policymaking environments.

Effective research dissemination strategies may represent the best way for proponents of evidence-based policies to encourage better-informed policy debates in the community and increased public and policymaker support for evidence-informed GDL policies. Some researchers may be reluctant to engage in media advocacy, but it is nonetheless critical that researchers strive to ensure that their findings are disseminated beyond the scientific community. Given the acute global impact of novice driver trauma and the potential for increased research utilization to foster more effective policy outcomes, such dissemination strategies may offer considerable public health benefit.

Acknowledgments

R. Hinchcliff was funded by a PhD scholarship from the NRMA-ACT Road Safety Trust for this research.

Human Participant Protection

This study protocol was approved by the University of Sydney human research ethics committee. Participants provided written consent.

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