Thursday, June 25, 2009

RISK by John Adams

Review by PBT member Murray Henman

I recently read a book called Risk by John Adams,. My interest arose from my Masters dissertation and our attitudes to the relative safety of walking, cycling and driving. Some of the important areas in the book I picked up on were:
• how we both underestimate and overestimate risk, depending on our assessment on various situations
• different personal and cultural attitudes to risk.
• risk compensation, and how some people will tend to take risks despite safety precautions designed to protect them.
• and the many individual and societal interactions through which risk is calculated. How we adjust our own risk levels depending on others’ behaviour.

It’s quite interesting and mostly fairly readable. If the topic sounds interesting, get a copy from your library or bookstore. Here are some quotes and facts I found interesting.
In 1971 80% of seven and eight year-olds (in the UK) travelled to school on their own, unaccompanied by an adult. By 1990, this figure was 9% - the parents’ main reason being fear of traffic. (p13)

On the road, and in life generally, risky interaction frequently takes place on terms of gross inequality. The damage that a heavy lorry can inflict on a cyclist or pedestrian is great; the physical damage that they might inflict on the lorry is small. … Those who make the decisions that determine the safety of consumer goods, working conditions or large construction projects are, like the lorry driver, usually personally removed from the consequences of their decisions. The consumers, workers or users of their constructions, like the cyclist, are in a position to suffer great harm, but not inflict it. (p20)

Adams is very keen to debunk cost-benefit analyses, and argues that many statistics are relatively meaningless:

The government is very keen on amassing statistics. They collect these, raise them to the nth power, take the cube root and prepare wonderful diagrams. But you must never forget that every one of these figures comes in the first instance from the village watchman who puts down what he damn pleases. – Sir Isaac Stamp

The British Medical Association examined both police and hospital statistics relating to road accidents. Some 30% of traffic accident casualties seen in hospital are not reported to the police, and at least 7% of cyclist casualties go unrecorded. (p75)

It is accepted by most criminologists that police crime statistics have a very tenuous relation with crime. (p75)

Over many decades, research, policy, legislation, education and highway engineering have all focused strongly on the safety of people in vehicles, to the neglect of the welfare of vulnerable road users – those on foot and bicycle.
The safety measures adopted have created vehicles that are safer to have crashes in, and road environments that are more forgiving of heedless driving. Measures adopted in the interests of safety of pedestrians usually take the form of movement-restricting barriers that oblige people on foot to travel further through tunnels or over footbridges. Road safety education for children tells them nothing about their rights as road users; it is devoted exclusively to inculcating attitudes of deference to traffic from a very tender age. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents encourages parents to keep their young children on reins, and an official government safety leaflet aimed at parents now insists that children under the age of 12 should not be allowed out on the streets unsupervised by an adult. And the safety advice aimed at cyclists stresses the danger of cycling to the point that all but the heedless and foolhardy are likely to give it up. (p82)

He talks about the difference between Willingness to Accept (WTA) and Willingness to Pay WTP) principles and their relative roles under a Restrictive Rule and Permissive Rule. This is a rather interesting, but difficult concept that is vital to understand appreciate if you’re involved in these debates.

To ask environmentalists how much they are willing to pay to prevent damage to the environment is to assume a permissive law (generally in. favour of “development”). It is to assert that people have no right to clean air and water, to peace and quiet, to their architectural heritage, to cherished landscapes, or to habitats for endangered species. These are all transformed into privileges for which people are expected to pay out of limited budgets. (p100)

The irritability of the planners stems directly from the unresolved valuation problems. The planners are persuaded that the benefits of their schemes outweighs the costs, but those in the path of their schemes rarely agree. Because some potential losers are incapable of assigning finite numbers of dollars or pounds to their losses, the planners cannot prove that the benefits of their scheme outweigh the costs. So they bypass the difficulty. Instead of asking people what amount of money would compensate them for their losses, they ask them what they would be willing to pay to prevent these losses. This has the effect of transforming all priceless valuations into finite numbers, and subsequently reducing them to a lesser value. (p172)

…cost-benefit analysis is almost always used not to make decisions, but to justify decisions that have already been made. The [UK] Dept of the Environment’s Guide admits that cost-benefit analysis cannot do justice to the concerns of people who think that some things are priceless. But a method that dismisses such people as irrational does not persuade them, it antagonises them. (p107)

After the introduction of mandatory seatbelt laws in the UK, it is estimated that the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists killed rose by 8% and 13% respectively. Similarly, it is estimated that the number of rear seat passengers killed (to whom the law did not apply) rose 27%. Interestingly, the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed by heavy goods and public service vehicles (which were not covered by the seatbelt laws) decreased. (p125)
The risk compensation hypothesis, and the historical time series data on cyclist and pedestrian deaths, both suggest that the increase in cyclist and pedestrian fatalities following the seat belt laws is likely to be a temporary transitional effect. Over the longer term, cyclists and pedestrians have responded, and are likely to continue to respond, to the increasing threat of motorised traffic by withdrawing from that threat. (p125)

He argues that you would be likely to drive more carefully if you didn’t have seat belts, if your children were not securely fastened.

Mayer Hillman (of London’s Policy Studies Institute) observed that climbers without ropes, cricketers or American footballers without helmets and pads, pursue their sports much more carefully without these safety aids. … He pointed out (to cycle helmet campaigners) that if they were really concerned about head injuries, they should begin their campaign with elderly pedestrians who account for more fatal head injuries than cyclists of all ages added together. Head injury fatality statistics showed that children jumping and climbing, and motorcyclists of all ages before applying the law to cyclists. (p146)

The miner’s safety lamp (known as the Davey Lamp after its inventor) is usually credited with saving thousands of lives. However, because the map operated at a temperature below the ignition point of methane, it permitted the extension of mining into methane-rich atmospheres; and was followed by an increase in explosions and fatalities. (p211)

You can read his blog, about him, and some of his essays and presentations at

No comments: