CONTACTTRAFFICABOUT TOM VANDERBILTOTHER WRITING CONTACT ABOUT THE BOOK

While We’re on the Subject of Denmark…

Mikael at Copenhagenize wrote me recently to note that the Politiken, the newspaper mentioned in the previous post, has for the past few years been making it a point to write up the details of every traffic fatality that occurs in Denmark.

The deaths, represented starkly in a field of red crosses (moving your cursor over each reveals the details behind the incident). The website, in Danish, can be viewed here.

As I discuss a bit in the book, statistics for traffic deaths are a bit confounding. Unlike large-scale events, like the recent train crash in Los Angeles, they tend to involve small numbers of people (often just one), scattered about the country. These individual tragedies add up to a severe problem on an epidemiological level — yet this presents its own problems. We hear, for example, at the end of the year, an annual toll of highway fatalities, but as the work of Paul Slovic has demonstrated — people feel less compelled to respond as the statistical number goes higher (and as an aside, most people in the U.S., in surveys at least, don’t know how many people are killed in traffic every year).

And then, when talking about taking steps to reduce fatalities, weird factors, like a kind of “proportion bias,” creep in. In a paper by Fredrich, et al., titled “Psychophysical Numbing: When lives are valued less as the value of lives at risk increase,” published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the researchers found, to quote Slovic, “that people required more lives to be saved to justify mandatory anti-lock brakes on new cars when the alleged size of the at-risk pool (annual braking-related deaths) increased.”

So what Politiken is doing presents a few possible responses. One, it might raise people’s awareness of traffic risk (at least those who read the newspaper). The second, though, is that tallying up the numbers may “numb” people to a certain extent, making them feel that such deaths are inevitable (to be fair, the newspaper does give the details behind each). In that vein one wonders whether it would be more effective to write at length about only a few deaths, but at great length, making the victim seem like “more than just a number.” Slovic’s research has found that people are much more willing to make donations to save the life of a refugee when it’s only one refugee they’re told about, rather than masses of refugees. Of course, with traffic fatalities, there’s no one to actively save, which also makes campaigns difficult. In any case, I do think Politiken is to be commended for its novel approach (Streetsblog was doing a similar thing for the New York City-area but seems to have stopped) to an enduring social problem. Curious for any opinions one way or the other.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 7th, 2008 at 4:47 pm and is filed under Etc., Risk. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “While We’re on the Subject of Denmark…”

  1. Ian Walker Says:

    Perhaps that suggests you could pick anyone – the cutest 8-year-old you can find – as the poster child for road safety?

  2. Mikael Says:

    The Politiken newspaper’s approach is, indeed, novel. The website you link to is just the totals, with a short description of each fatality. The short description is featured in the daily paper and when you read it there, on it’s own, it is more poignant.

    Here’s an example, translated, from August 10th – fatality 228.
    “A seven year-old girl died in hospital after she was run down near her home on Vildmose Street near Bronderslev in Northern Jutland. The girl ran across the street to reach her nine year-old sister, but ran out in front of a car.”

    These descriptions are detailed enough to paint pictures in my head. Street names, died in hospital, was running over to her sister, etc.

    Ironically, Politiken is the one paper that is actively promoting bike helmets – indeed they have outright refused to publish helmet-skeptical articles. Ironic because people can read the details of every cyclist’s death – they are hit by cars as a rule – and bicycle helmet are only designed for solo accidents under 20 km/h.

    In addition, you can see how many pedestrians are hit by cars and yet there is a shocking abscence of pedestrian helmet campaigns in Denmark.

    All in all, though, I personally find the detailed descriptions poignant.

  3. Josh Mayes Says:

    I spent 7 years teaching driver education and traffic school. I know from personal experience that telling students that 42,000 people die in vehicle collisions annually has very little effect. Showing them gory videos and photos is also a poor strategy. It’s very hard for anyone to translate numbers and photos into actual lives.

    Even shocking gore videos like Red Asphalt don’t seem to convey the dangers of vehicle collisions. In fact, in driver education classes with teenagers especially, Red Asphalt is something that students look forward to. I was always astounded when students would request that I rewind the tape and play it again, or ask if I had anything bloodier.

    While adults were not generally as “blood-thirsty” as teens, many of them viewed traffic deaths with a sense of smug detachment. Their attitude was that death was something that happened to other people, stupid people. It was very rare for anyone to express concern that this may happen to them.

    I think that this may be partially caused by the tendency to place much of the blame on alcohol and other external factors. Very little is ever said about personal responsibility. We ignore the fact that the vast majority of collisions are caused by inattention and poor judgment, something that everyone on the road is guilty of at one time or another.

    I think that key element to any good driver is an understanding of our own fallibility. We are all capable of making fatal mistakes. Diligence and care is required by every driver to minimize this risk.

    As a side note, I found that videos and stories of people who survived vehicle collisions with life altering injuries resonated with students. The conclusion that I drew from this is that people fear pain and crippling injury much more than they fear death.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

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