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Status Report, Vol. 37, No. 10 | SPECIAL ISSUE: HIGHWAY SAFETY GETS SHORT SHRIFT | December 7, 2002 Subscribe

Drivers think crashes only happen to other people

Why isn't American society more concerned about reducing the deaths and serious injuries that occur in motor vehicle crashes? Why is so much more attention focused on a range of other public health problems? One reason is that drivers overwhelmingly believe crashes happen to other people, not themselves. They insulate themselves by creating what Cornell researcher Sheila Jasanoff calls "illusory zones of immunity around routine, everyday activities."

A report published by the Russell Sage Foundation, which conducts social science research, expands on the idea of a zone of immunity: "The best established results of risk research show that individuals have a strong but unjustified sense of subjective immunity. In very familiar activities there is a tendency to minimize the probability of bad outcomes. Apparently, people underestimate risks which are supposed to be under their control. They reckon they can cope with familiar situations."

Drivers bolster this sense of subjective immunity with the belief that their own driving skills are better than other people's. Three of four respondents to a recent Institute survey (and a similar proportion of respondents to a 1994 Institute survey) rated their driving skills above average. Virtually none said they were worse-than-average drivers.

It isn't true, of course. By definition, some drivers must have skills and abilities that don't measure up to the average. Still, most everybody points to the other guy as the problem.

More than half of the respondents to the 2002 Institute survey said they believe they can, through their own behavior, "control risks on the highway" and, presumably, avoid crashing. It's not that people are unaware that crashes occur. A wealth of research indicates that, while people do know crashes and other negative events occur, they think such events are unlikely to happen to them, regardless of their behavior behind the wheel.

British psychologist Frank McKenna points out that when "individuals overestimate their skills in tasks like driving and believe that negative events like accidents will not happen to them, then the result may be that … relatively risky behavior such as speeding … may be perceived as all benefit and no cost."

The cost may be negligible for an individual embarking on a single car trip. That is, the likelihood of a crash is very small, even if the driver engages in risky behavior. But on a societal basis, the cost attached to risky and/or inattentive driving is huge. Such driving behavior is a factor in most fatal motor vehicle crashes, Institute researchers have found. They tallied the contributing causes of crashes included in the federal government's Fatality Analysis Reporting System for 2001, finding that driver failure to obey traffic laws and/or driver inattention contributed to at least 82 percent of the collisions.

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