Focus on Safety: How Driving Rates on the 'Risk Thermostat'

By AutoObserver Staff May 11, 2011

john adams.jpgJohn Adams is a Professor of Geography at University College in London specializing in risk management, especially within the transportation sector. Mr. Adams recently spoke with Edmunds.com CEO Jeremy Anwyl about some of the traffic safety issues he’s helped to confront in his home country. In the following excerpt, Mr. Adams explains how driving compares to other activities on his self-described "risk thermostat," and how seatbelts in some way make driving even riskier.

Jeremy Anwyl: In the United States, seatbelts are viewed as sort of a no-brainer. Could you share with us some of your thoughts about seatbelt legislation?

John Adams: Okay. Well, over here, it’s a no-brainer as well, except for a few mavericks like me who insist on looking at the statistics relating to the outcome. When this country passed a seatbelt law and it came into effect in January ‘83, at the same time, they passed a law that hugely increased the penalties and the likelihood of getting caught for drinking and driving.

Now, if you look at the statistical outcome, almost all of the decrease in fatalities in the aftermath of these two pieces of legislation occurred during what are called the drink-drive hours between 10:00 at night and 4:00 in the morning.

Jeremy Anwyl: So if I’m a driver am I safer if I’m wearing a seatbelt?

John Adams: You're safer if you're in a crash. Your chances of emerging unscathed if you're in a crash are significantly improved. That’s not contested.

Jeremy Anwyl: Okay. That’s why I just wanted to make sure because I’ve been wearing seatbelts for a long time. I wanted to make sure I should still be doing so.

John Adams: In order to explain the statistical outcome, at the time the English law was passed, it was claimed that it would save 1,000 lives a year. So, the change in behavior that would be required to account for the effect or the non-effect of seatbelt legislation is really quite tiny. It would amount -- for 1,000 lives -- it would amount to one additional error of judgment or fatal lapse of concentration every 250 million kilometers traveled. So it’s not the sort of behavioral change you can observe by standing at the side of the road and watching traffic go by.

Jeremy Anwyl: That’s a good point because when you consider the number of vehicles on the road, the number of miles driven, kilometers driven, every year, statistically, accidents are still fairly rare. It’s not like every time you drive, you're going to have an accident.

So if I’ve got this correct, if we look at seatbelts, it seems like there’s a couple of things happening. One of them is that individually, you are safer by wearing seatbelts, but there’s a systemic view which is pedestrians, motorcyclists, what’s happening to the world around you, and it seems like there are some compensating things going on there that cause the overall level of safety to not change materially. Is that correct?

John Adams: Well, I was careful when I answered your earlier question to say that if you are in a crash, your chances of emerging unscathed are improved, but the evidence suggests very strongly to me that seatbelts change behavior.

The countries that had the evidence in the form of insurance claims that permitted comparison back when I did my seatbelt study -- Denmark and Sweden -- their insurance claims over the previous years had gone up and down together, and then one of them passed a seatbelt law and the other didn’t. And the one that didn’t pass the seatbelt law, their insurance claim rate continued to decline. The one that did pass the seatbelt law jumped.

Jeremy Anwyl: We saw something like this with ABS brakes, didn’t we?

John Adams: Well, yes. When ABS brakes first came out, they're superior brakes. So, obviously, cars with ABS brakes must be safer cars and insurance companies initially offered discounts for cars with ABS brakes, and then the claims experience started to mount and so far as I’m aware, no insurance company now does offer a discount for ABS brakes.

The claims experienced indicated that they weren’t having fewer accidents; they were having different accidents, accidents consistent with being higher performance cars.

Jeremy Anwyl: From a behavioral perspective -- this reminds me of moral hazard where, because you feel like there is a system to warn you of danger, that you're less likely to be taking responsibility yourself for turning and looking to see if someone is in your blind spot.

John Adams: There’s something I call the risk thermostat. Everyone has some propensity to take risks. I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s persuaded me that their risk thermostat is set to zero. Life would just be unutterably boring.

A propensity to take risks leads to risk-taking behavior, which leads, by definition, to accidents. Taking a risk is doing something that carries with it a probability of an adverse outcome. And through having accidents and surviving them and learning from them or seeing them on television or being warned by mother, we acquire our perception of what is safe or dangerous.

Why do we take risks? There are rewards for risk-taking and the model proposes that the magnitude of the reward influences propensity.

Jeremy Anwyl: We've been doing some work in terms of the issue of teenage driving and clearly, there seems to be a phenomenon where a teenager in a vehicle with other teenagers is a very unsafe vehicle to be in because of this reinforcement where teenagers like to take risks, and are more likely to take risks in the company of other teenagers.

John Adams: Well, that phenomenon has been noted for a long, long time, but here -- in this reduced essence of risk-taking behavior, you have accidents and you have rewards and rewards come in many incommensurable forms. It could be money, power, love, glory, food, sex, rushes of adrenaline, whatever terms you want.

Jeremy Anwyl: All very animalistic.

John Adams: But I’ve highlighted control and loss of control because that hugely influences people’s perceptions of risk, and the numbers almost don't matter. Let’s do this one this way. You can start with risk and you can divide it into voluntary or involuntary risk or imposed risk.

A pure self-controlled, voluntary risk might be rock climbing. You do it for the challenge or the adrenaline rush or if you're a young man, you can perhaps pump the same amount of adrenaline if you're on your motorcycle or in a car. An applied self-controlled, voluntary risk might be driving. A diminished control example, that’s me on my bicycle.

Jeremy Anwyl: When you say, “diminished control,” it’s because of external events that increase the risk?

John Adams: Yes.

Jeremy Anwyl: Okay. Like other drivers?

John Adams: Other drivers. You may voluntarily get on a plane or a train, but then you hand over control of your fate to the pilot or the driver.

When you get into the realm of imposed risks, I have what I call a benign imposed risk, and my exemplar here is mobile phone, which are hotly contested in this country, and some people maintain that there is a radiation risk associated with mobile phone risks.

And then a malignly imposed risk might be rape or murder, and finally, at the bottom, we have al Qaeda, terrorism. Now, the numbers almost don't matter, but as we work from top to bottom have a risk, highly accepted, sometimes sought, and at the bottom, we have what is commonly called risk amplification.

Now, I said the numbers almost don't matter. On the 7th of July 2005 bombs in London killed 52 people, six days worth of death on the road, but you don't get 10,000 people in Trafalgar Square every Sunday marking their grief over last week’s road death toll with a three-minute silence. So the death on the road, at current levels, is broadly acceptable.

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