The Danger In Making People Feel Safer Than They Really Are

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

As I keep saying, overregulation is not merely a nuisance. It is often counterproductive even by the standards of those promoting it.

Here is an example and some studies to back up my assertion.

Four years ago Wellington, New Zealand reduced speed limits from 50 to 30 km/h (30 to 20 mph) to improve pedestrian safety in an area with a lot of bus traffic. Bus-pedestrian collisions increased. Apparently bus drivers drove slowly in obedience to the new speed limit and pedestrians took that as an invitation to walk into traffic. More typically, drivers simply ignore such speed limits, as in Dublin, Ireland recently.

The problem in Wellington was that city bus drivers actually did obey the speed limit.

Even the traffic calming handbook warns that excess stop signs increase speed and accidents. The Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices warns that excess traffic signals are dangerous and counterproductive.

A Federal Highway Administration study found that painting crosswalks on busy, four lane urban streets with traffic faster than 35 mph increased pedestrian accidents. Pedestrians who used those crosswalks were more likely to get badly hurt than pedestrians who crossed similar streets without crosswalks.

A recurring theme is the danger making people feel safer than they really are.

Suppose we mandated better tires. With better tires you can brake harder and turn sharper to avoid a collision. It’s obvious that you would get into fewer accidents with better tires. It’s obvious, but it’s not true.

The effect is called “risk compensation.” The study used antilock brakes instead of better tires.

Drivers with ABS are more likely to tailgate and drive aggressively, relying on good brakes to save them. Pedestrians are more likely to walk in front of slow-moving buses than fast moving buses. Pedestrians are more likely to walk in front of fast-moving traffic when “protected” by a stripe of white paint.

Not all safety-motivated changes are good, and not all are bad. Driving is a lot safer than it was 50 years ago, and we’re going places faster. Obviously something has worked. The problem is, it’s hard to predict which changes have their intended results and which do something unexpected.

Drivers and pedestrians are human beings, not robots. Most of us are comfortable with the risk of everyday life. You can not program our behavior directly. You can only influence it indirectly.

Next time you hear about some “obviously” good law — banning texting while driving is in fashion this year — ask yourself what’s going to happen when it meets the real world.

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