Thursday, September 25, 2008

Why do people ride the (bad) way that they do?

Thanks for the great comments on my most recent post! John asked the $64,000 question - or the $2 billion to $6 billion question, considering the staggering annual cost of traffic crashes in Kentucky: why do people bike (and drive) in disregard to traffics law and safety statistics? Do they not know the law? Do they find it inconvenient to obey traffic laws? Do the violate the laws out of rebelliousness?

People do what we believe will benefit us, as long as we do not fear some risk that would outweigh the benefit. If I believe that riding on the sidewalk is safer than riding on the street, and I do not fear getting punished for riding on the sidewalk, I will ride on the sidewalk. I say "believe" and not "think" because we make many (most?) of our decisions with little or no rational basis. Everyone who rides a bicycle in the city decides whether to ride on the sidewalk or on the street, but darned few of us have read anything about relative crash probabilities for sidewalk riding versus on-street riding.

One can make similar observations about a great many decisions that people make: in which neighborhood to live, what career to pursue, what car or bike to buy... We almost never even attempt a life-cycle cost-benefit analysis of the decision. If we do, we inevitably hit a brick wall when we encounter a variable for which we have no information, for example, the likelihood that the economy will change in ways that make my chosen career obsolete or unsatisfying. Even if we are inclined to think carefully about the safest way from point A to point B by bicycle, most of us do not have the information or skill to compute the objective best answer.

If the choices facing us so often overwhelm our capacity (or stomach) for rationality, how do we make these decisions? A key part of the answer is our tendency to follow social norms: what we see other people doing and, in particular, the behavior that we see modeled by people we respect or admire. Our parents and teachers and religious leaders set social norms for us early in life. For example, the religion and political leanings of our parents are the most potent predictors of our own religion and politics.

Most of us were taught as small children to play on the sidewalk and not in the street. We learned that streets and cars are dangerous. We have "learned" from advertising that the best way to improve traffic safety is to get into a car with more safety features: roll cages, crumple zones, seat belts, front and side air bags. This emphasis on crash safety encourages us to rely on the vehicle, rather than on our own driving behavior, to keep us safe. In other words: crashes are inevitable, and there's nothing you can do to change that except to stay as far from moving cars as you can, unless you are inside one. Facing intelligent people with statistics from reputable sources showing the increased risk of sidewalk bicycling versus on-street bicycling often results in puzzled expressions and convoluted explanations as people defend their lifelong training to stay away from cars.

In another post, I will address the suggestion that we distribute a pocket card explaining the reasons to follow some key bicycle safety practices. The short answer: such a card might help, but only in the context of a well-designed and thoughtfully executed social marketing campaign. Indeed, social marketing may prove the way out of the wilderness in terms of improving bicycling behavior significantly in less than a generation.

1 comment:

Jason said...

I believe the top reason people ride on the sidewalks is that they don't know it's illegal. When I was young, that's how I was taught to ride a bike. We stayed on the sidewalk to avoid being hit. So when I took up riding again a little over a year ago I had to re-teach (or adapt to) the new rules.

But even though education about the law should come first, it's tough convincing some people that riding on the road really is safer. I have an even tougher time convincing my family of this after I was struck by a car recently while riding in the road. I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "Well that'll teach you to stay on the sidewalk!"

I wish the driver's test included a section where you had to correctly respond to a cyclist in the road. Not only would it educate drivers, but it would help convince them that cyclists can and should be on the road. Can you imagine how perception would change in a generation if every high school junior talked about how he or she did on the cycling part of the test? "Did you pass?" asks one. "No, I didn't give the cyclist enough room."