Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Policy That Feels Right But Raises Our Risk

Do you use a cell phone when you drive? Not to text, or watch videos, which is just plain stupid. Just to talk, so at least you can keep both eyes on the road, if not both hands on the wheel.

Or maybe you use a hands-free device, one of those in-your-ear Star Trek looking things, or a voice-activated system built into your car. That would be better, right? Eyes on the road AND hands on the wheel. More Control = Safer, right? That’s what a lot of drivers say who use such devices. It’s also what the Massachusetts House thinks, having just passed a bill that would permit DWP, Driving While Phoning, but only using hands-free devices.

That may feel safer. But it’s not. Research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that when three states and the District of Columbia passed laws like the one proposed here, accidents rates did not go down, based on the number of insurance claims for crash damage. Laws like the one being considered in Massachusetts don’t work.

This should not be a surprise. It is well-established that using a cell phone while driving distracts your brain, whether the phone is in your hand or hanging on your ear. But that evidence has apparently been disregarded by legislators here and in 6 other states, and more than 40 countries, who passed similar “hands-free only” laws to reduce the risk of DWP. Why? The answer lies in a deeper understanding of the ways humans perceive risks in the first place, an understanding that might help us make future public health and safety choices more wisely.

Risk perception is a mix of fact and feeling, cognition and intuition, reason and emotion. In this case, the specific emotional factor is control. A sense of control makes any danger feel less dangerous. So the illusion of giving drivers more control is appealing to lawmakers. It just feels like it should make things safer.

But such laws could well make things worse. If you’re DWP using a hands-free device, and you think you’re safer because you’ve done something to increase your control, there is a good chance you’ll be less worried. You are likely to drive less cautiously (even though your brain is just as addled), and the risk to you, and everyone around you, is either the same, or possibly even greater. Laws making it official that hands-free DWP is safer, when it isn’t, contribute to the problem.

The affective nature of human risk perception, ingrained deep in ancient subconscious neural architecture and information processing systems, often leads to policies that feel good, but don’t maximize public health and safety. Risks that involve particularly painful outcomes evoke more fear, for example, which is one reason why America spends way more on cancer research than heart disease research, though both have deep unanswered questions that need such basic research, and though heart disease kills roughly 20% more people - more than 100,000 - every year. (The National Institutes of Health research spending in 2006 came to $9,958 per cancer death, $2,429 per heart disease death.) We’re afraid of risks we have trouble understanding, or that we can’t detect with our own senses, stigmatized by high-profile events. So after Three Mile Island (death toll - 0) and Chernobyl (estimated lifetime cancer death toll - 4,000, according to the World health Organization) we chased nuclear out of our energy mix and ended up with more fossil fuel, which kills thousands every year from particulate pollution, and fills the atmosphere with climate-changing CO2.

We look to government to protect us from many things. But that means more than just protecting us from too many parts per million or drivers using cell phones. We also need government risk managers to protect us from The Perception Gap, when our instinctive risk perceptions leave us more afraid of some things than we need to be, or not as afraid of some threats as we should be. Government decision making impaired by the instinctive way we perceive risk, as right as it might feel, can be a risk all by itself.

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