Why We Violate the Rules Revisited


By Phil La Duke

I thought I would close out distracted driver awareness month with a bit of a tangent, because frankly, I’m probably even more tired of writing about it as you are of reading about it. But as tangential as this post is, there is indeed a connection to driving while distracted.

Several weeks ago I spoke at the Michigan Safety Conference on Why We Violate The Rules based on an article I wrote for my column in Metal Working & Fabricating. It was a popular article and it has become a widely requested speech.  After the presentation, one of the true thought leaders in worker safety and a very accomplished safety professional whom I admire and respect asked one[1] of the best questions I have ever been asked and it was related to driving while distracted: how do you enforce an unenforceable rule.  The context was relative to a conversation that grew out of the answer to a previous question and the discussion centered on enforcing rules that prohibit the use of smart devices and texting while driving.  I read a statistic recently that over 70% of the respondents admitted to violating or ignoring their companies’ rules limiting or prohibiting texting or cell phone use.  My answer was quick, as is my nature, and extemporaneous which is fairly characteristic of me, and I’d like to think, pretty close to on the money. I said that if you want a rule to be followed irrespective of the possibility of enforcement the rule has to be value-based.

Values-Based[2] Rules versus Compliance Based Rules

There are two different kinds of rules[3]: Values-based rules are the guiding behaviors that are an outgrowth of the population’s shared values.  We tend to follow these rules because we believe that not following them is morally wrong, outside our cultural norms, or otherwise intrinsically distasteful.  While I’m fond of saying, jokingly, that the only thing keeping some people alive is the laws against killing them, I believe that most people would not commit murder, or rape, or assault if it were legal.  These are rules that are values-based and we follow them because we judge doing so as the right thing to do.  Compliance-based rules are different; we follow them because we don’t want to risk the unpleasant consequences.  Many people exceed the speed limit, drive like they have been pithed or violate any number of traffic laws; and yet few of these people feel like they have done anything morally repugnant. So either most people who violate traffic (or parking laws) are sociopaths or, and I think more likely, they are merely complying when they fear enforcement is imminent.

Violating a values-based rule can turn a person into a social leper and a pariah but violating compliance-based rules can turn an individual into a folk hero. The basic and essential difference is we care very deeply about values-based rules and really don’t give a rip about compliance-based rules[4].

Is a rule really a rule if there is no reasonable expectation of compliance?

Can we really say that something is a rule if over two-thirds of the population ignore it with impunity? There is some precedence in English common law that could be interpreted as saying that if the law (or for our purposes the rule) is neither followed nor enforced that it is, in fact, not a law at all.[5]  In organizations an employee disciplined for violating a rule that over 70% of the company also violates could construct a pretty solid argument for selective enforcement[6].  So why have a rule that people aren’t going to follow? Well for one, it makes us feel better.  It appeals to the three-year old in all of us who is going to run and tell.  It also appeals to the cranky old man in us who shakes his craggy fist at the sky and rails about how there oughta be a law! Like so many other things in safety it makes us feel like we are doing something of substance when we aren’t really doing anything at all.  And before you say that it “covers your…assets” consider that the widespread failure to comply and likewise failure to enforce opens you up for potential asset damage.

Making the compliance-based value-based

My first instinct is to say, throw out rules that are merely compliance based unless the compliance is rooted in the law. If you’re employee handbook is choked with rules because some vacant suit in the executive suite went off his meds and had a conniption fit because someone committed the sin of committing one of his pet peeves or atavistic rules that try to preserve the good old days of polio you are better off getting rid of the rules.  But if the rule is something like “don’t use your cell phone or text while driving”, you have to change the rule from being a compliance-based rule to a values-based rule; this can be tough with rules like this because the rules are lagging behind societal norms.  A reasonable person (hell a completely unreasonable baboon) could have predicted that texting, reading emails, dialing phones, and any of the other things associated with driving while seriously distracted would lead to disaster, and yet we missed that.  We had to wait until people started dying at an alarming rate, until railroad engineers had to derail the trains they were driving killing scores of people, in short, until the problem had reached epidemic proportions.  Even so, many of us did these things without killing anyone, or even almost killing someone, so the behavior continued until it became socially acceptable.  I don’t have the space this week to offer suggestions on how to make the socially acceptable socially unacceptable, but I promise to revisit the topic and share some tips.  I warn you though, reversing the course isn’t easy once the genie is out of the bottle, but then, what choice do we have?

[1] I say this not to suck up, but to establish that this wasn’t just some crackpot trying to play stump the speaker and I’m not going to name drop, especially since he doesn’t know I am writing this.  Not that I am above name-dropping mind you, but only if it suits my purposes.

[2] Technically this should probably be “value-based” instead of “values-based”; the change is deliberate. I want to distinguish between values as in those deep-seated beliefs that govern our decisions and behaviors versus a rule that we place some sort of contrived value.

[3] I’m sure if I gave it enough thought I could come up with a metric ton of kinds of rules, but for today’s purposes let’s just deal with two.

[4] I think it’s worth noting (and essential to ward off the mouth-breathers) to point out that the two types of rules need not be mutually exclusive.  One can follow a rule because it is deeply ingrained in one’s values AND because one fears enforcement.

[5] I’m not a lawyer, I have no license to practice law, (although I often lie about being a lawyer to impress women) and anyone who construes this as legal advice is so stupid they are probably worth more to society in parts.

[6] The practice of using the rules to persecute individuals who you dislike or to mask discrimination against a protected class.


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