BC Injury Prevention Conference: puzzles and answers

Last week, at the at the BC Injury Prevention Conference 2010, some presenters and attendants put forward interesting questions that manifest inconsistencies in people’s behaviour and perception of risk:

  • Why parents have their children wear bicycle helmets, but still refuse to use them?
  • Why more than 70% of Canadians think they drive better than others? Does this indicate that education campaigns have failed?1
  • Why gang related crime gets more police and media attention than road crashes, when the latter produces way more fatalities than the former?1

In this post, I will briefly address these questions and present campaign suggestions based the answers.

Parents and helmets

Parents are inconsistent regarding use of bicycle helmets, because they experience an optimistic bias; the belief that one is more immune to a hazard, while acknowledging that others (namely, their kids) are susceptible to it2,3.
This bias influences people’s perception of life expectancy, susceptibility to police controls, and heart attacks1,2. It also explains why many parents simultaneously think they don’t need a bicycle helmet, but believe their children need one.

Deluded(?) drivers

Drivers think of themselves as better than the average, because people like to think of themselves as above average in positive characteristics 2,4. As the optimistic bias, this illusory perception of self is prevalent in many aspects of life, such as social interaction, teaching, leading, playing sports, and of course, driving. 5,6,7,8,9

Gangs versus roads

Gang related fatalities are perceived to be more prevalent, because people tend to overestimate the frequency of dramatic or sensational causes of death1; in this case, homicide. This effect is greatly increased by the media1, because gang related deaths ussually make the front pages, but traffic accidents rarely do.

How is this useful to injury prevention?

First, we now know that parents don’t fret much about their safety, but are concerned about the safety of their children. Consequently, messages that attempt to change parents’ attitudes or behaviours should focus on their children: they could, for instance, encourage parents to set an example for their kids.

Second, psychology research suggests that the above-average illusion is greatly influenced by ambiguity: people are more likely to think of themselves as superior, if the trait or skill in question is open to interpretation10.
This seems to be the case of driving ability, because as a society we don’t seem to have a clear standard of “good driving”. For instance, young males might think that safe driving is about controlling the vehicle, while some women might define it as being cautious. It follows, that our communication efforts should also aim at generating a clear standards of competent and safe driving.

Finally, we don’t need to sensationalize road fatalities, in order to improve risk perception. Detailed descriptions of traffic incidents and their human context can contribute to change people’s attitudes toward road safety11. Of course, this requires communication, coordination and collaboration with the media. Incidentally, this was the theme of the 2010 Conference.

I wonder what would happen if we invited media representatives to the next event…


  1. Lamb, A. (2010). Guns and gangs haver our attention. Traffic related deaths and injuries do not. British Columbia Injury Prevention Conference, 2010.
  2. Slovic, P. Fischhoff, B, Lichestein, S. (1992). Informing the public about the risks from ionizing radiation. In Arkhes, H.R. & Hammond, K.R., Judgment and decision making. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, MA.
  3. Lewis, I., Watson, B., Tay, R. & White, K. M. (2007). The role of fear appeals in improving driver safety: a review of the effectiveness of fear-arousing (threat) appeals in road safety advertising. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, 3, 2, 203-222.
  4. Alicke, Mark D.; Olesya Govorun (2005). “The Better-Than-Average Effect”. In Mark D. Alicke, David A. Dunning, Joachim I. Krueger. The Self in Social Judgment. Studies in Self and Identity. Psychology Press. pp. 85–106
  5. Delhomme, P. (1991). Comparing one’s driving with others’: Assessment of abilities and frequency of offences: evidence for a superior conformity or self-bias? Accident Analysis and Prevention, 23, 493-508.
  6. Svenson, O. (1981). Are we all less risky and more skilful than our fellow drivers? Acta Psychologica, 47, 143-148.
  7. Constant, A., Salmi, L.R., Lafont, S., Chiron, M. & Lagarde, E. (2008). The recent dramatic decline in road mortality in France: how drivers’ attitudes towards road traffic safety changed between 2001 and 2004 in the GAZEL cohort. Health Education Research, 23, 5, 848–858.
  8. McKenna, F. P., Stanier, R. A., & Lewis, C. (1991). Factors underlying self-assessment of driving skills in males and females. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 23, 45-52.
  9. Walton, D. & Bathurst, J. (1998). Perceptions of the Average Driver’s Speed compared to Perceived Driver Safety and Driving Skill. Working papers, March, 1998.
  10. Dunning, D., Meyerowitz, J.A., & Holzberg, A.D. (1989). Ambiguity and self-evaluation: The role of idiosyncratic trait definitions in self-serving assessments of ability. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 1082–1090.
  11. Wilde, G.J.S. (1993). Effects of mass media communications on health and safety habits: an overview of issues and evidence. Addiction, 88, 983-996.

6 thoughts on “BC Injury Prevention Conference: puzzles and answers”

  1. Interesting analysis. Thanks for writing this.

    I’m tempted to search for root cause when I hear these symptoms. The underlying dialtone seems to be the bias created by what we’ve learned (or been programmed with).

    So where does this programming come from, and how can we encourage people to change their programmers? I’d argue most of it is from the media. This seems to be easy to fix with the “off”button 😉

  2. Yes. one other interesting fact you might consider about safe behaviour is the myths people create about it. For instance, it also happens on other venues, like health service (parents do take children to the doctor more often than they are willing to do), or even food (this is not good for you, but I can safely eat it). well, the list is long, and … NO Tak, I will not submit the reference… It is there somewhere, you know there is…..

    By the way, Great article, congrat.

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