Behavioral psychology tells us that there are two ways to modify human or animal behavior. Negative reinforcement, as the name implies, generally involves something unpleasant in reaction to an undesired behavior. Positive reinforcement involves some sort of reward for acting as desired.

Generally speaking, positive reinforcement usually produces quicker (and more consistent) results than negative reinforcement, yet the threat of negative reinforcement governs our behavior every time we get behind the wheel.

Exceeding the speed limit is a behavior undesired by authorities; get caught, and your negative reinforcement comes in the form of a speeding ticket, possibly accompanied by a significant increase in the cost of your automobile insurance.

Now, a study partly funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and reported by NPR (via Inside Line) shows that there may be a better way. What if, the study asked, you gave drivers a financial incentive (positive reinforcement) for not speeding?

Drivers in the experiment agreed to have a GPS device installed in their cars, and were promised a $25 reward at the end of the week for staying at or below speed limits. Exceeding the speed limit by up to eight miles per hour cost three cents for each occurrence; breaking it by nine mph cost drivers six cents per occurrence.

Other subjects in the study were given GPS monitoring, with no penalty and no financial reward. The end result, to no one’s surprise, was this: the group that got paid was the most diligent about obeying the speed limit, and one driver even admitted it was like a game to see how much of the promised $25 he could keep.

Don’t expect to see sweeping changes in traffic laws (or insurance company policies) just yet, as this particular study involved just 50 participants, a sample size almost too small to be relevant. Besides, the loss of revenue generated from ticketing would have a negative impact on police departments everywhere, making change further unlikely.

Frankly, we’re OK with the system as it exists today, but really wish that law enforcement would spend more time targeting distracted driving and less time worrying about speed enforcement. Drivers exceeding the speed limit (within reason, of course) don’t make us nervous; those on cell phones do.