December 1, 2006

Proposed car safety device: a sharp stake on the steering wheel.

Pointing right at the driver! Think about how effectively it would work. This, risk expert John Adams explains, is why seat belts do not reduce death and injury as much as you might think:
Think of a trapeze artist, suggests Adams, or a rock climber, motorcyclist or college kid on a hot date. Add some safety equipment to the equation — a net, rope, helmet or a condom respectively — and the person may try maneuvers that he or she would otherwise consider foolish. In the case of seat belts, instead of a simple, straightforward reduction in deaths, the end result is actually a more complicated redistribution of risk and fatalities. For the sake of argument, offers Adams, imagine how it might affect the behavior of drivers if a sharp stake were mounted in the middle of the steering wheel? Or if the bumper were packed with explosives. Perverse, yes, but it certainly provides a vivid example of how a perception of risk could modify behavior.

Perverse... and awesome. Picture a whole bizarro world full of safety devices like this! How exciting life would be, even as all you were doing was being really, really careful. For a movie that proceeds on this theory of producing excitement, watch "Wages of Fear":
In a squalid South American oil town, four desperate men sign on for a suicide mission to drive trucks loaded with nitroglycerin over a treacherous mountain route. As they ferry their explosive cargo to a faraway oil fire, each bump and jolt tests their courage, their friendship, and their nerves.

ADDED: Funny typo in the original title to this post: "steering whee." Indeed. What a thrill!

AND: There's a drunk driver I used to know who argued -- vociferously! -- that drunk drivers drive more safely than sober drivers. As long as they aren't so drunk that they've forgotten they are drunk, they are motivated to drive super-safely because they know they have impaired reflexes and they know they are in big trouble if they are stopped by the police.

38 comments:

Tim said...

"AND: There's a drunk driver I used to know who argued -- vociferously! -- that drunk drivers drive more safely than sober drivers. As long as they aren't so drunk that they've forgotten they are drunk, they are motivated to drive super-safely because they know they have impaired reflexes and they know they are in big trouble if they are stopped by the police."

Except, of course, the police know this, and the drunk drivers call attention to themselves driving five miles per hour slower than the posted limit and flipping the turn signal on six blocks in advance...and no one really believes drunk drivers are safer than sober ones.

J said...

"For a movie that proceeds on this theory of producing excitement, watch "Wages of Fear""

Remade in 1977 as "Sorcerer", if you want the english language version.

cokaygne said...

I confess that, years ago, I drove while drinking and drunk. You're right in my experience, the drunken driver does drive more carefully, up to a point. The remedy perhaps doesn't have to be as stark as a stake on the steering wheel or explosives in the bumper. How about putting an indelible dye on the airbag that would mark the driver's face for life? Or how about banning the sale of automobile insurance? Of course, that latter would put a lot of you lawyers out of business. That would not be so bad, would it? Anyway, think of the analogy to crime. Criminals don't carry insurance. Some states have some, limited, compensation for crime victims, but it hardly covers the real losses, especially the psychological ones. So what do people do? They avoid high-crime areas and situations. They defend themselves if possible. Above all, they demand, and sometimes get, strict law enforcement.

Pete the Streak said...

This has been an insurance industry risk management mantra for many years; too many OSHA mandated safety requirements and practices (beyond a baseline of common sense precautions) instill a false sense of security, resulting in an increased frequency of accidents. I attended a seminar many years ago in which the speaker insisted that the most careful workers and drivers were the ones that knew they were engaging in a proscribed activity, whether it be using a ladder (instead of the required lift) to retrieve an item from the top shelf, or simply exceeding the speed limit (drunken driving is a whole different ballgame, your friend's assertations aside). He asked us to observe other drivers on our way home, and see which drivers had both hands on the wheel, and were focusing intently on the road: the speeders, or the ones easing along in the right hand lane. He was correct.
Of course, the speeder's accidents tend to be more spectacular. However, the insurance industry fears claim frequency much more than claim severity, which is why you're much more likely to have your auto coverage cancelled after three $1000 claims than after a single $200,000 loss (not that they like either scenario).
Do not, however, assume that a few speeding violations on your MVR makes you more attractive when shopping for new coverage. The underwriting department does not reward risky behavior, and views those violations as an indicator of future claim frequency no matter what the observations are from the risk management side.

Anonymous said...

I believe I have heard the same thing about four-wheel-drive/all-wheel-drive and antilock brakes and the like: drivers assume that the "safety features" allow them to behave less safely and survive.

Anonymous said...

I'd comment on this thread but I'm really busy today. Please excuse me while I go push wood through an enormous razor sharp spinning circular blade all day.

George said...

Wasn't there a recent study that found that small, convertible-type sports cars were actually far safer to drive than giant SUVs?

The reason?

People in tiny cars are more aware of how dangerous driving is than people in cocoon-like tanks; therefore, they have fewer acidents.

Personally, I try to keep offensive bumper stickers or ones with tiny type off my bumper. No need to have anyone tailgaiting to read my car....

AJ Lynch said...

I agree with his theory that people drive faster, etc with seatbelts. On the other hand, seat belts have saved many thousands of lives in the last 30 years.

His analysis should focus on all accident occurrences (not fatalities) per licensed driver and factor in a numerical discount to mitigate the increase in US population density. Then he would have a good idea if the real number has grown BUT he would never truly know if it was due primarily to his seat belt theory (since we now have cell phones, DVD players, coffee holders, dumber people).

YAMB said...

Pete--actually, the underwriting department cares more about the extra premium they can collect due to violations, more than they care about supposed extra risk. There is very little evidence that correlates one ticket, esp. a speeding violation, with increased propensity to cause an accident.

Bissage said...
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Troy said...

Sippican -- be safe. And don't wear any goggles or gloves so you will force yourself to be more careful.

Robert Burnham said...

For years, I have used that "spike on the steering column" argument as a way to get people to think about how perceived risk alters behavior.

On the other hand, I've found that discussions about mandatory seatbelts, bicycle helmets, etc. are usually pointless because the two sides are not actually talking about safety.

Instead, they are using the language of safety to discuss political philosophy. No wonder they just go around and around...

knoxgirl said...

Sippican, didn't you mention once you can't get health insurance in Massachusetts? Talk about living on the edge!

Dave TN said...

A few weeks back Instapundit linked to a news article of a town in England that is doing away with all traffic lights as an experiment. So far the accident rate is lower which is attributed to people being more careful at intersections. Suprisingly, traffic flow is also better.

Is this the end of the road for traffic lights?

Molon_Labe_Lamp said...

It's a nice romantic theory but sociteies have not evolved haphazardly.

It does excite the imagination to think about all kinds of goofy products I could make.

-The Slippery Gun
-Woodworkers Rollerskates
-Gimbaled Chainsaw
-Hearing aides that block the phrase "Watch out!"
-A device/system that allows morons to contol the world! (Congress)
-Shrodinger's Cat Refrigerators for weight loss

Anonymous said...

Knoxgirl- You remember everything.

The least of my problems if I cut my hand off is paying a doctor to duct tape the stump.

Where can I get those roller skates molon mentioned?

knoxgirl said...

I remember because my husband was an uninsured woodworker for almost ten years. See, we are lucky enough to live in Tennessee, where we have TennCare, universal *cough* state healthcare. You know, the kind of system you can pay taxes to support, but won't let you enroll? It's brilliant! Now, if you quit your job or deal drugs, it's no problem to get on board, but otherwise...

...sorry, still bitter after all these years.

Molon_Labe_Lamp said...

Sipp-

Sold as a set with:

-Woodworkers Unbreakable Necktie
-Woodworkers Old Time Waxpaper Safety Glasses


Your results may vary, but I found they work best with the waterbed table saw platform.

bearing said...

A friend of mine lives on a one-lane-each-way, curvy, hilly residential street, about 2 miles long, that connects two major roads. It's commonly used as a "back way" that avoids the stoplights on the six-lane road that it roughly parallels.

Although it is within the city limits, and although the speed limit is 25 mph, and although it is lined with houses, the street has a double yellow stripe down the middle, presumably for safety.

Most cars appear to go 45 mph or faster. I worry that somebody's kid is going to get hit, as there aren't any sidewalks and it's common to see children walking on the road to and from school. My friend argues persuasively that if the city would just get rid of the double yellow line (which signals "rural" to most people), motorists would drive more slowly.

Strayhorn said...

The mechanic/author John Muir used to say that everyone should drive as if they were strapped to the front of the car.

Of course, he noted, when you drove the old VW busses, this is exactly what you were doing anyway.

reader_iam said...

Regarding the "sharp stake on the steering wheel":

Given my height (5'1-1/2"--and, yes, I cling to that last 1/2 with both hands), the airbag already sort of serves that function.

Once all those stories came out about how airbags supposedly can cause greater injury to us shorties, the word "airbag" in the middle of the steering wheel has taken on more alarming meaning, for me.

Elizabeth said...

These bright ideas can backfire, as this self-regulating fire alarm demonstrates. The box would grab and hold the arm of whoever pulled it, to ward off pranksters. But it's really the folks alerting officials to an actual fire who are in danger! (hat tip to boingboing.net, which linked to the story yesterday.)

Fritz said...

The economic moral hazard of seat-belts I would argue is relatively small. SUV's during periods of inclement weather is big time! I enjoyed the reference to risk of the condom. I bet the author of this article thinks it is good public policy to pass out condoms to high school students.

ModNewt said...

This, risk expert John Adams explains, is why seat belts do not reduce death and injury as much as you might think

This implies that merely removing seat belts from the car would have the same effect on people's driving as a spike in the steering wheel.

I doubt it. People don't perceive how dangerous driving is with or without a seatbelt. Driving is far more dangerous than flying but I perceive most folks have a far greater fear of flying.

I used to drive carelessly/recklessly when I was younger; mostly because I liked driving fast. I've settled down mostly because I fear hurting another driver (and getting sued) or my children.

Elizabeth said...

ModNewt,

I live on a little neighborhood street that I distinctly remember speeding down as a teenager. Now I run out and yell at speeding cars and idiots going the wrong way.

Hey, you kids, get off my lawn!

Damn, getting older makes me cranky.

LetMeSpellItOutForYou said...

Steven Landsburg used the same stake-on-the-steering-wheel example years ago in his excellent book, The Armchair Economist, and I assume he got it from Adams.

Roger Sweeny said...

Massachusetts drivers have a reuputation for being horrible, but the accident rate is pretty average.

One explanation that is often given is that Massachusetts drivers know the other guy is nuts, so they drive more defensively.

Hunter McDaniel said...

Another example I've heard is that injuries are both more common and less severe in rugby football than they are in American football. The pads just let the players give and take harder hits.

Revenant said...

Driving is far more dangerous than flying but I perceive most folks have a far greater fear of flying.

It is more dangerous overall. It is not necessarily more dangerous to the individual driver. Almost everyone killed in car accidents is tired, intoxicated, careless, unskilled, or a passenger in a car driven by someone who is one of the above.

A proficient, cautious, and conservative driver is extremely unlikely to die behind the wheel.

Kev said...
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Kev said...

Re the seatbelt thing: I always tell people that I would no more drive (or ride in) a car without a seatbelt than I would ride a roller coaster without the safety bar engaged.

LoafingOaf said...

Except, of course, the police know this, and the drunk drivers call attention to themselves driving five miles per hour slower than the posted limit and flipping the turn signal on six blocks in advance...and no one really believes drunk drivers are safer than sober ones.

Yeah, I've been pulled over on the teensiest pretexts if I happen to be in an area where there's a lot of drinking going on, just so the cop can look me over. I get scared by that even though I don't drink and drive!

And I often see cars driving extra carefully on a weekend nights...except...oops...they forgot to turn their headlights on. That's almost always a drunk.

It's just too risky to chance DUIing anymore, since those MADD mothers have made it "drunk driving" when you're not even buzzed. So, they've succeeded in scaring me sufficiently, however I do think they've gone a bit far.

When's someone gonna do something about all those sleep deprived drivers? That's just as dangerous!

Ron said...
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Ron said...

I know I'm coming late to the party on this one, but I've sussed it out.

Look driving is neither exciting enough or boring enough! It's middle-of-the-road, which is worst of all!
If driving my car were like flying my F4 Phantom over Hanoi during the Vietnam War, where the slightest error gets me instantly reduced to paste, you're damn right I'll pay attention!
Or if I could just get in my Jetsons car, tell it where I wanted to go, and it took me there in total safety,so I could totally ignore driving altogether, that would be perfect!
But, no, I have to pay attention or get in an accident of some type which only may kill me, but most likely will be just a four star pain in the ass to deal with! However, most driving is only slightly more interesting than filling out tax forms, auto enthusiasts be dammed!

My mantra is a simple one: Absolute
Vaporization upon commiting an error, or Absolute Safety as Robot Car takes me where I want to be at 200mph with no consequence.

I'm human; that's what I want, and I want it now!!!

ModNewt said...

Revenant said...
Almost everyone killed in car accidents is tired, intoxicated, careless, unskilled, or a passenger in a car driven by someone who is one of the above.

I realize I'm days late replying, but this is like the football fan who says "That RB didn't really have a great game; if you take out those three 20 yard runs he averaged only 3 yards per carry."

Well sorry, nobody get to take those 60 yards away and you don't get to take all the drunk, unskilled, or sleepy drivers off the road because it suits you.

You also fail to mention that these unskilled/drunk drivers tend to hit not only inanimate objects, but other people. I'd be stunned if "almost everyone" killed is in the vehicle at fault in a given accident. I doubt you have the data to back it up.

ShadowFox said...

Sharp stake on the wheel and drunk drivers driving safer--these are probably two of the dumbest arguments I've heard in my life (and I've heard them before). In the former, it's just an attack on nanny culture, whining about seat-belt laws, motorcycle helmet laws, anti-smoking laws, etc. It's simply shameful that it comes from an "expert". Let's remember why we call it an "accident"--accidents usually happen unexpectedly and not always (in fact, not usually) the fault of the driver. So the argument is--yeah, I already said it--stupid!

Now, onto the drunk drivers. It is commonly believed that geriatric driver are safer because they are more defensive, less likely to speed, etc. But let's remember what they lack--full sensory capacity and reasonable reaction time. That's why when they crash, they take a lot more lives with them, on average, than other people. That's why you can have an demented old guy driving down the highway with a body of a pedestrian he killed stuck in the windshield (in Florida, last year).

Now, compare that to drunk drivers and the reason why they drive "more carefully". They know that they are not in full possession of their sensory faculties and they know that their reaction time sucks. Driving slower may prevent some kinds of accidents (some reaction time problems), but not others (lack of sensory awareness and other reaction times--like being able to tell when to hit the brakes). So the argument is--wait for it!--STUPID!

And, please, lets not confuse these two with the ABS problems. ABS is a system that prevents brakes locking and, therefore, the car losing control while breaking. It does not prevent losing control while driving (I just watched that Friday morning in Madison) and it does not shorten the braking distance. In fact, ABS increases the braking distance.

This leads to problem with drivers who BELIEVE that having ABS in a car will bail them out in a dangerous situation and, therefore, pay less attention to the proximity of other cars. That's a driver problem. But it is not predicated on the actual increased safety, but on a misinterpreted safety function of the device. So even in this case it is not of the type alleged by Ann's "expert".

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