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.
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.