Don't worry about my driving, the car has airbags

My friend Macgregor Duncan draws my attention to a WaPo piece by Shankar Vedantamon how people undermine government intervention by changing their behaviour.

Trying to fix problems that affect vast numbers of people has an intuitive appeal that politicians and policymakers find irresistible, but several warehouses of research studies show that intuition is often a poor guide to fixing systemic problems. While it seems like common sense to pump money into an economy that is pulling the bedcovers over its head, the problem with most social interventions is that they target not robots and machines but human beings — who regularly respond to interventions in contrarian, paradoxical and unpredictable ways. …

Previous research has shown that people drive faster in vehicles that feel safer, attempt to bike on more dangerous terrain when they wear helmets and pay less attention to infants being bathed when the children are in seats that are said to reduce the risk of drowning.

This is a hard area for policy to cleverly address, but an important one to take into account.

Vedantam also quotes a splendid experiment from psychologist Ian Walker.

Traffic psychologist Ian Walker at the University of Bath in England once conducted a similar experiment that vividly illustrates the problem with well-intentioned interventions that backfire.

Walker rode a bicycle equipped with a distance sensor, video camera and a computer. Over 15-to-20-minute periods, he rode with his helmet on, then with his helmet off. He rode some segments three feet from the curb and others closer to the edge of the road. With each iteration, he changed a single variable. In the interest of being rigorous, he even obtained a shoulder-length wig of curly black hair, so that some passing motorists would think he was a woman.

It is not known whether any drivers turned around for a look after they passed the bicyclist. If they did, they would have been puzzled: “It was slightly embarrassing, because I had a beard at the time,” Walker said. “I spent a couple of days going up and down the road wig on, and a couple of days going up and down the road, wig off.”

Walker was trying to figure out whether his interventions changed the way drivers passed his bike. He came to two conclusions: Cars gave him more leeway when drivers thought he was a woman with curly black hair. And they gave him less leeway — getting dangerously close — when he wore a helmet.

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6 Responses to Don't worry about my driving, the car has airbags

  1. NPOV says:

    No question that safety regulations can often cause people to then behave less safely, but I suspect it’s pretty rare that they actually cause increased risk. I can believe that bicycle helmet might be one such example, and I personally don’t believe that helmet laws are justified (in nothing else, they seem to significantly reduce the attraction of cycling to many people), but I would be highly surprised if, say, mandating airbags or seatbelts could actually cause more deaths on the road than would otherwise be the case because they caused people to drive less cautiously. Airbags especially, because they’re not something you’re even aware of while driving.
    I might accept that I would at least initially drive more carefully if I had to drive a car with no seat-belts, but I reckon I’d soon settle back to my regular driving style.

  2. Pingback: The Perils of Government Intervention « Knowledge Futures

  3. reason says:

    Better brakes are worse. I learnt to drive in a car with lousy brakes. You learn to look ahead. The trouble with good brakes, is they can’t do anything for reaction time to the unexpected.

  4. Harry Greenwell says:

    I was interested in this comment on drivers’ reactions to helmeted cyclists in Vedantamon’s article:

    “Walker thinks drivers are influenced by unconscious stereotypes — they may believe that female bicyclists are less steady, and that helmeted bikers are pros.”

    If Walker’s supposition is correct, presumably it would not apply in places where the vast majority of cyclists wear helmets (eg, where helmets are compulsory). In such cases, surely drivers would eventually overcome any unconscious stereotypes because the variation of ability within the helmeted cycling cohort would be at least as great as the variation between helmeted and non-helmeted cyclists. Thus, drivers would not be inclined to drive more riskily and cyclists would also be protected from head injuries.

    (Of course, the curse of “helmet hair” would still remain!)

  5. Mike Pepperday says:

    Read: John Adams, Risk. London: UCL Press, 1995.

    The evidence for motor bike helmets is unambiguous: in some US states they repealed the laws for helmets and the injury rates increased slower than in those states that retained the helmets.

    The book has much more somewhat surprising stuff about child restraints and seatbelts. The statistical evidence all points the wrong way.

    The author thinks that the safety equipment makes people feel safer and so they behave in a riskier manner.

  6. David says:

    NPOV said:

    No question that safety regulations can often cause people to then behave less safely, but I suspect it’s pretty rare that they actually cause increased risk.

    This was my initial thought too. And I think a lot of the human responses to intervention aren’t unpredictable or paradoxical at all – if you’re presented with a safer car or better blood pressure medication, it’s natural that some people will want to trade some of that extra safety for convenience or speed. Not necessarily a bad thing.

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