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Personal risk: risk behavior and young drivers

By: Roger Blackman

Date: Tuesday, 18. August 2009

Roger Blackman, PhD, is professor of Psychology, at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, B.C., Canada.

This article was originally published in the Spring, 1997 issue of Recovery Magazine , which is published by the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia. It is reproduced here with permission from the author and ICBC.

Social scientists like to tell the story of a passerby who encountered a stranded motorist late at night searching the ground beneath a street light. "Did you lose your keys here?" asks the passerby. "No," replies the motorist, "I lost them further down the road, but the light is much better here."

Despite the best efforts of road-safety experts, the conventional approach to reducing roadway crashes and injuries appears to be stalled. Our search for solutions, like the driver's search for her keys, may have become fixated on areas where implementation appears easy, rather than where the real problem lies.

Traditionally, traffic-safety initiatives have followed the "triple-E" strategy of education, enforcement, and engineering. Measuring the success of these initiatives is difficult, Considering the scope of the problem-approximately 50,000 fatalities and many times more injuries in North America every year-the gains achieved appear disappointingly modest, and we seem to have a long way to go.

To foster fundamental change, we need to put traffic safety into a broader perspective, focusing on root causes rather than symptoms, and emphasizing rewards rather than punishments. This approach was advocated in a recent book entitled Target Risk by Queen's University psychologist Gerry Wilde, whose ideas I have borrowed for this article.

At the heart of the problem is the question of risk. Some people believe that, by definition, risk is bad-something reasonable individuals should avoid. Yet risk is an inevitable element of human life; all actions carry some degree of risk, and, as the saying goes, "nothing ventured, nothing gained."
Even exceedingly safe activities involve risk. If people are too safe, they may miss out on some greater reward.

Reasonable individuals seek a balance between risks and rewards. While driving, people must make make many risk-based decisions about speed, overtaking others, changing lanes, running amber lights, and so on. Presumably, driver's assess the "costs and benefits" of their options, although this may not be a conscious deliberation. Travelling slowly may make the trip unacceptably long, for instance, but travelling too quickly may lead to a speeding ticket or even a crash.

Balancing risk

Wilde argues that individuals have an acceptable risk level, which he terms their "target risk." This is a personal characteristic, reflecting one's preferred level of safety.

Some people arc extremely cautious and expose themselves to relatively little danger. Others crave the excitement of activities like rock climbing or driving at unsafe speeds and are willing to accept the risks entailed. Most of us fall somewhere between these extremes: we will tolerate some intermediate degree of risk to achieve the goals that we value.

According to Wilde, target risk represents a goal to be maintained, rather- than a maximum acceptable level. If drivers perceive their actual risk to be lower than their target level, they will take actions that tend to close the gap. A typical example might be drivers who purchase cars with anti-lock braking systems, and then, perceiving a reduced risk, begin to follow other cars more closely than before or to cruise at a somewhat higher speed.

These tendencies, which have been confirmed by researchers, maintain the overall level of riskiness of driving behaviour in the face of improvements to the driving environment.

As well, the incidence of crashes may not be permanently lowered by safety interventions directed at a specific driving behaviour. Motorists may simply spend any "safety savings" by increasing risk in other aspects of their driving. For instance, J. Adams showed convincingly that the introduction of seat-belt legislation in several countries during the 1970s did not lead to a permanent reduction in traffic fatalities.1 Although the fatality index in these countries declined, slightly greater reductions occurred in countries that did not introduce such laws.

Underestimated dangers

A broad-based strategy for change must induce drivers to lower their acceptable risk level, while also reaching them to estimate risk more accurately.

Research has shown that drivers frequently underestimate the danger of driving at unsafe speeds but overestimate the benefits (usually in terms of reduced trip time). Judging actual risk is a particular challenge for novice drivers, who tend to underestimate driving dangers in general while overestimating their own abilities.

Yet the problem is much broader than just new and inexperienced drivers. In fact, it is much broader than the activity of driving itself. In general, people are not particularly well informed about the risks that threaten their well-being.

For example, Harvard researchers recently used the best evidence available to identify the causes of cancer. Contrary to popular beliefs, the findings showed that 2% of cancer fatalities call be attributed to environmental pollutants, 10% to genetic factors, and fully 70% to smoking, drinking, high-fat diets, and sedentary lifestyle, implying that individuals have greater personal control over the risk of getting the disease than they might think.

"In general, people are not particularly well informed about the risks that threaten their well-being."
If people are to make accurate assessments of risk, they need to be better- informed, whether about driving any other "health-related" activity. And driving is, in fact, a health-related activity. It is one of the greatest threats to the health of voting adults and makes up a significant portion of the total health risk for most people under the age of 50.

This is partly a problem of public education and driver training. Through vigorous educational initiatives, both in schools and the popular media, drivers and other road users call be better educated about the risks and benefits inherent in particular activities.

Desiring safety

Influencing people's preferred level of risk is a much bigger challenge-and a more important one. If we could induce drivers to want to be safer, they would take fewer risks and would obviously be less likely to crash.

How might this goal be achieved? In November 1996, the Ontario government announced tougher laws, heavier penalties, and increased enforcement for traffic violations. The evidence suggests that this may not be a particularly effective approach, or at least that it will not, on its own, produce the long-term changes needed to greatly reduce, injuries and fatalities.

Gains in safety may be made through increased enforcement, but only when the likelihood of detection is high-for instance, during Christmas impaired-driving campaigns. When detection is unlikely, increasing the severity of punishment has little impact on driver behaviour. Further, the apparent gains from a crackdown on one aspect of driving are likely to be offset by increased risk-taking behaviour in other areas.

A better approach might focus on rewarding good drivers rather than punishing bad ones, depending more on carrots than sticks.The discount on insurance premiums granted by ICBC to claim-free drivers is one example. A preliminary but unpublished statistical analysis confirms anecdotal evidence suggesting that this financial incentive has prompted many motorists to drive in a less risky manner.

How does a rewards-based strategy relate to Wilde's theory of target risk? Target risk refers to the entire spectrum of human behaviour, rather than merely the way people drive. We should, therefore, shift our focus to encompass a much broader perspective-namely, safe and healthy living. If people feel a generally increased need for safety, this will moderate both their driving behaviour and other activities that carry health risks.

Accomplishing this shift will be extremely challenging. At this point, society lacks a well-developed plan that can be immediately put into action. It seems reasonable to assume that people's desire to be safe depends on how much they value longevity. If you have good things to look forward to, you will surely want to be around long enough to enjoy them. If people can be persuaded to be more optimistic about their future, they will take fewer risks. This should result in healthier living practices, including safer driving.

This may strike some readers as a naively simplistic approach. But it is consistent with what psychologists know about human behavior. It has a broad rather than a narrow compass; it focuses on root problems, not symptoms; and it emphasizes rewards rather than punishments.

Changing driver behaviour is a difficult and potentially frustrating goal. Yet if we are to find the key to promoting traffic safety and health, perhaps we should stop looking under the lights and begin looking in the more murky areas, where the solution really lies.

1. J.G.U. Adams (1985). Sneed's Law, Seat Belts and the Emperor's New Clothes. In L. Evans and R. C Schwing (Eds.), Human Behavior and Traffic Safety (pp. 193-245). New York: Plenum.

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how can we stop our youth from using the road like they own it forgetting that we all live in the same world. i need idvise on how can i approach the youth to aways look out for other people not to look out for themselves only.


how does thistype of risk behavoiur give quality of life to this different spheres like psycological, physical, emotional, spiritual, social and ethical.

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