“Best Safety Lies in Fear” (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3)

In his works, Shakespeare often displayed a great depth of perception of the human condition. The quotation in the title appears, on the face of it, to be counterintuitive yet modern statistical studies show it to be true: for example, people who drown are more likely to be strong swimmers who love the water than non-swimmers who are afraid of the water.

Why should this be so? I suggest that there are two kinds of fear that influence safety. One kind is fear of being in peril, at risk of being harmed, a feeling of vulnerability. The other kind is fear of being incompetent, unable to cope with hazardous situations.

Let’s look at vulnerability first. Some people involved in road safety claim that everyone would drive more safely if all cars were equipped with a sharp spike in the centre of the steering wheel instead of an airbag. They’ve got a point (sorry about the pun). Plenty of research suggests that as feelings of safety increase, behaviour becomes increasingly likely to be careless. Conversely, the more vulnerable people feel, the more careful they are. This is known as risk compensation.

Three examples of risk compensation in action.

Example 1: A driver behaviour study was conducted some years ago with a fleet of taxis in Munich. This was in the very early days of anti-lock braking systems. The cabs were all very similar but some had anti-lock brakes and the rest didn’t.

The drivers of the ABS-equipped cars knew that they had this new safety system and they were given factual information about the system’s capabilities (e.g. that it allowed simultaneous hard braking and steering) and limitations (e.g. that it wouldn’t shorten stopping distances).

The crash rate of the fleet was tracked over three years and it was found that the cabs equipped with anti-lock brakes (which should have made it easier to avoid collisions) had no fewer crashes than the non-ABS cabs. It seems that the drivers with ABS felt safer and drove closer to other traffic, leaving themselves less room to stop.

Example 2: In 1967 Sweden switched from driving on the left to driving on the right—literally overnight. After the change, the crash rate dropped 40%. After eighteen months it was back to the previous level.

Researchers attributed the temporary drop to drivers’ feeling of unease at driving “on the wrong side of the road.” Drivers really had to think about what they were doing; they tended to drive more slowly and deliberately. Once they got used to the change, they became more casual and careless again.

Example 3: The crash rate of classic cars is very low (even after adjusting for the low mileage they tend to cover). Obviously, owners have a strong incentive to protect their pride and joy, which they may have spent years restoring.

But there’s another reason for classic cars’ very low crash rate: you really don’t want to have a crash in one. It’ll hurt. Old cars tend to have poor tyre grip, weak brakes, often no seat belts, no airbags and a structure that is, compared with a modern car, very poor at absorbing and dissipating impact forces and likely to collapse onto the occupants.

So drivers of old cars are, quite literally, scared of crashing them. Which generates safe behaviour.

The fear of being unable to cope

What about the other sort of fear, the one related to feelings of lacking competence? Well, it seems to be the case that recognising and understanding one’s limitations can make a stronger contribution to safety than learning a new skill or developing existing skills.

If you feel ill-equipped to cope with a particular situation, you tend to avoid that situation or compensate massively. But if you feel competent to deal with a hazardous situation (even if that competence is illusory, as it so often is), then you see no need to avoid such situations, and may even seek them out to experience a feeling of being in control of one’s destiny.

Who crashes in snow?

We can see a clear indication of this principle at work on the roads every winter. When the roads are covered in snow and ice, who are the drivers who end up driving into ditches, trees or other vehicles?

Are they the drivers who feel very unsure of their ability to deal with slippery conditions? Not usually; most of those leave the car at home. They avoid the situation. And if they were to find themselves driving in such conditions—perhaps through getting caught in a snow storm before they could get home—they would tend to drive very slowly, so as to keep well within their known-to-be-limited ability. Then, if the car were to skid, it wouldn’t skid very far; and if they were to hit something, they wouldn’t hit it very hard.

The people who crash in these conditions tend to be the people who, before the crash, felt that they were in control. And the drivers who have the biggest crashes tend to be those who are the most confident in their ability. Consequently, they make the least compensation for the conditions.

The funny thing is, especially with the latter group, even after a crash they’re unlikely to revise their opinion of their competence, preferring instead to blame “freak” conditions.

Another myth busted

This principle of best safety lies in fear contradicts a commonly-held belief about driver education and training. I’m thinking about the belief that one has to be highly-skilled driver in order to be a safe driver—and that, consequently, skills training must be the most important element in road safety.

Many people, including some of those professionally involved in road safety, would never question such a belief. Yet various research studies have found that the most skilled drivers do not have the lowest crash rates and that, especially in the case of young, male drivers, providing training in extreme control skills (high speed avoidance techniques, skid control and the like) actually correlates with an increased crash rate.

The Norwegian experience

In Norway, they found this out the hard way. The authorities were concerned at the high crash rate amongst newly-qualified drivers during the Nordic winter so they introduced compulsory skid training for new drivers in 1979. They discontinued it in 1994. Why? Because they found that the skid training produced an increase, rather than the expected decrease, in crashes. And this increase was most significant in the case of young, male drivers.

As you might expect, research was funded (eventually) to find out what went wrong, and also to find a better way to tackle the problem. The conclusion was that the compulsory skid training failed because the emphasis was on coping with skidding situations instead of emphasising how to avoid them. Graduates of the training falsely believed that they would be able to master dangerous situations and so they saw no need to avoid such situations or to drive very slowly if they encountered them.

It’s skid training, Jim, but not as we know it

As a result of these findings, a new form of skid training has been adopted throughout Scandinavia. Now the emphasis is firmly placed on recognising the limitations of car and driver in tricky conditions. Participants see how difficult it is to stop and/or steer on a slippery road, and how easily they can lose control of the car. Significantly, they are not taught how to “get out of a skid.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that, at its heart, the training teaches participants to fear driving in winter conditions. Best safety lies in fear.

Yet, outside Scandinavia, we still find “skid control” training—of the old style—being advocated in the name of road safety, despite so much evidence to the contrary. You only have to Google “skid control” to see what I mean.

Please note that I’m not criticising skills training as such. I’m criticising superficial coverage of, and little or no opportunity to practise, extreme control skills which would take most drivers hundreds of hours to “hard wire” to the extent that they would be applied instinctively and competently in critical situations.

Risk awareness trumps illusory control

In closing, some advice: when evaluating safety training, consider whether the emphasis is placed on risk awareness and risk avoidance or on control in risky situations. If the latter, avoid.

As Laertes warns his sister Ophelia about Hamlet:

“Be wary, then; best safety lies in fear.”

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