Psychologist: False sense of security contributes to traffic fatalities

Research shows most people underestimate their chances of dying in a car wreck thanks to psychological factors. This makes it hard for traffic safety advocates to get people to change their behavior.
BY BRYAN DEAN bdean@opubco.com Published: April 29, 2013

More people die in traffic wrecks than in homicides, fires, terrorism and plane crashes combined.

So why do many people have panic attacks when they get on a plane but have no fear of driving to the airport?

Ryan Brown, an associate psychology professor at the University of Oklahoma, said there are several reasons the loss of life from traffic wrecks seems to be accepted as a part of modern life while less dangerous threats generate so much emotion.

For starters, people don't understand just how dangerous getting into a car is.

“There is a fair amount of research evaluating people's sense of the likelihood of dying in certain kinds of accidents,” Brown said. “In general, people overestimate their risk of, for example, dying in a plane crash and underestimate their risk of dying in a car crash.”

False sense of control

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 7,944 people died in Oklahoma traffic wrecks during 2000-10. Nationally, 450,793 people died in wrecks. Less than 3,000 people died in terrorist attacks in that period, the vast majority in the 9/11 attacks.

U.S. Transportation Department statistics show airplane crashes kill between 100 and 200 people each year in the United States.

One issue, Brown said, is that most fatal traffic accidents involve one person, maybe two. Wrecks that kill three or more people are exceedingly rare. But when a plane crashes or a terrorist strikes, mass casualties usually result.

“That means it gets a lot of media attention,” Brown said. “This gives people images that they can bring to mind. Those images convey a lot of emotion and can be brought back up the next time someone gets on a plane.”

Another factor is that drivers have a false sense of security when they are behind the wheel of an automobile.

“When you are driving a car, you feel like you are in control,” Brown said. “When you are in a plane, you aren't in control because there is a pilot. The same is true, obviously in a terrorist attack. We know that a sense of being able to control your destiny is important to people.”

The No. 1 cause of traffic wrecks is speeding.

Other causes like alcohol and distraction also involve choices or errors made by drivers. This makes it easy for people to dismiss their own danger because they think they are better than the average driver.

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