Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Perceived safety, risk compensation and funny bikes

As a follow up from my previous post, I wanted to write something about the psychology of riding funny bikes and how it impacts on risk.  It was pointed out to me that there was a difference in approach and that this could impact on safety too, so I thought I'd spend a few hundred words fleshing this out.

First, a concept that came out of road safety research: risk compensation.  Wikipedia has a reasonable introduction on this concept.  In essence, our behaviour changes when we feel safe and we compensate for this with riskier behaviour.  There are plenty of examples on the linked to page above, but it has an impact on any safety oriented change.  If this change has a small impact on how safe we feel, but a major one on the risks we face, outcomes should improve & if the converse is true, then outcomes will remain constant or get worse.
Should there be an intervention that has no real impact on safety, but which makes us feel considerably safer, then this is very much a bad thing since outcomes should get worse: the perfect anti-safety intervention.
Conversely, something that makes us feel less safe and reduces risk is the perfect intervention; it's just not very saleable.

I personally dislike the concept of "safety" when it comes to impacting on risks & would prefer things to be laid out carefully in terms of costs and in terms of the risks that they impact on, but I'm strange like that.  See, the first thing I make sure of on a hot, sunny days ride that involves any speed at all is a pair of sunglasses (as long as they're appropriately made not to shatter), since I can reduce the risk of getting something in my eye and losing visibility on a fast turn and reduce the likelihood of not seeing things through glare.  Wearing sunglasses doesn't make me objectively "safer", but it does help me control and minimise a real risk.

This comes out of the way in which humans are terrible at assessing risk.  We genuinely are terrible.  This is too big an issue to even start pulling apart, but it's pretty well established.  Oddly, safety theory and behavioural economics (prospect theory) are two of the places where this is most explored; but either would make good places to read more.  If we're terrible at assessing risk, promoting safety equipment as making you safer or focusing on the risk and not the numbers and reasons is doomed to fail.  Not that my approach would work well; it'd just fail less badly.  And allow appropriate re-adjustment after incidents.

An inability to assess risk efficiently and risk compensation (which are functions of system 1 taking charge of things when it really isn't in the interests of the person) are one of the major reasons for the incidents occurring to returning cyclists, who are one of the major at-risk groups on the road.  (Interestingly, dissonance theory predicts that a returning cyclist who has been injured is more likely to form the belief/have the belief reinforced that cycling is dangerous, as well to share this belief, which is one of the reasons that we really need to be promoting good road craft rather than plastic lids and yellow jackets, but that's another subject).

This leads me on to the point of this post: how belief affects behaviour and how this affects risk.
Let's consider a typical recumbent cyclist, relatively to a typical upright cyclist.  You are unlikely to feel safer than a typical cyclist either does or by internal comparison thereto.  There are a few main reasons for this:
  • Social factors - everyone keeps telling you how dangerous they are.  Facts be damned, they have little impact on our beliefs and perceptions of risk when compared to the views of our peers.  OK, this is true for uprights too, but there is a significant difference in scale.  Furthermore, other cyclists will tell you how dangerous they are, which will have far more impact than a non-cyclist telling you this.
  • Size - being lower down/feeling shorter makes you feel vulnerable.  You can't help it.  ("Across diverse species, physical size and, relatedly, strength, are elementary determinants of formidability, and this is also true of humans" from here (which is worth a read on this subject) referencing this).  Size is fundamental to our assessment of threat.  Reducing experienced size, makes other things seem bigger & therefore more threatening.
  • Difference - being unusual makes you feel at risk.  There is not always safety in crowds, but you normally feel safer if it is a crowd you feel you fit into.
There are a few bits and bobs around this, but this covers a bunch of it.  Now, my previous post suggested that the actual risk is lower when riding recumbent, however, it must also be that the perceived risk is actually higher.  That looks to me like the perfect safety intervention I mentioned above, but is probably the reason that folk stay on those weird, stick-bike things.

1 comment:

  1. Yes.. think that is pretty accurate. I worry about something that is lower or smaller than me. Oddly enough though people who use trikes never seem to be worried that the highest recumbent trike is still lower than something like a Raptobike. They believe that because they can't fall off and are slightly wider they are safer...
    ICE generally 'market' their trikes with a mix of images showing them on traffic free paths or smaller roads - but... they have added some urban footage at night recently with cars in shot. This is a good thing....