Category Archives: Safety

Are all crashes, ‘accidents?’

FinalMile works on a number of road safety projects where we are tasked with reducing incidents on highways. A key part of the work is discussions with the safety team and road users. When we ask them to narrate incidents they have seen or been in, many would say, “I was in an accident” or “I saw an accident.”  Oxford Dictionary defines accident as ‘an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally.’  Is it apt to call all the road incidents, ‘accidents?’

The word ‘accident’ is misleading because accident is something that just happens and is unintentional, whereas most crashes happen because of a bad decision made by a driver on the road. Even the crashes that happen due to over-speeding, distracted driving, or driving under influence (DUI) are referred to as accidents. When a driver responsible for a crash says “it was an accident,” what is implied is this: “I did not intend to do it” or “it was unavoidable” even though it was an active decision/choice made by the driver to over-speed, drive when drunk or text while driving. It is the same when a pedestrian jaywalks or crosses without looking. Calling them ‘accidents’ removes the active role the driver or the pedestrian played.

Head-on collision involving two trucks, killing both the drivers on spot; one of the drivers was drunk – a picture taken during one of our road safety projects.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, during the year 2014 in India, 4,50,898 road collisions resulted in 1,41,526 deaths. As per the report, 47.9% of these fatalities were due to over-speeding, 41.5% were due to dangerous/careless driving and overtaking, 5.3% due to poor weather conditions, 2.8% due to mechanical defect and 2.6% due to DUI. If we exclude the fatalities that happened due to poor weather conditions and mechanical failure, 92% of the fatalities were due to driver’s error.

Source: NCRB report 2014
Source: NCRB report 2014

Also, based on a data studied by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of US, 94% of the collisions are due to driver’s error. Around 20 years ago, the US Department of Transportation initiated a campaign to eliminate the use of word ‘accident,’ and police departments of New York City and San Francisco have replaced the word ‘collision’ for ‘accident’ while filling out collision reports.  According to US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, ‘changing the way we think about events, and the words we use to describe them, affects the way we behave. Motor vehicle crashes and injuries are predictable, preventable events. Continued use of the word “accident” promotes the concept that these events are outside of human influence or control. In fact, they are predictable results of specific actions.’

It is not just about control during the event. Language affects the chain of reasoning far beyond the event. People have a more general tendency to attribute their own behavior to situational factors and other’s behavior to dispositional factors – a social bias known as the “fundamental attribution error.”  Attribution theory helps us to understand why, in case of a crash, the driver attributes his fault to situational factors such as poor visibility or another vehicle, while ascribing behavior of the other driver to dispositional factors such as reckless/wrong side driving or over-speeding. The word ‘accident’ aids in ascribing the reason of the crash to external factors and makes it easy to rationalize. When the crash is clearly attributable to driver’s error, by calling it an accident, the driver is being excused for his negligence and unsafe behavior.  By referring to the crashes as accidents where the driver was not following the posted speed limits, manoeuvring dangerously on the road, or getting behind the wheel drunk, we are not holding the person responsible for the act. It is not that someone has to be blamed or held responsible for every crash, it is to make drivers more responsible and realize that crashes do not happen randomly.

The word ‘accident’ is very colloquial and it is a difficult task for sure to bring about the change in our system, but replacing it with ‘crash’ or ‘collision’ would be the first step to change our perception towards road safety.

Irrationality in the face of imminent death

Emirates crash

The video on how the passengers of the Emirates plane that met with an accident at Dubai airport behaved, holds major lessons on how humans behave at times of high risk.

The foremost reaction to any risk by most humans is denial, unless the risk is very salient. Even with the best of information humans are not capable of evaluating the risk levels of most situations. This optimism bias in times of risk can lead to a ‘business as usual’ attitude and resultant behaviours that are inadequate and inappropriate for an emergency situation.

From the video it is clear that many passengers, instead of rushing to the nearest exit and heading for the escape chute, are more focused on opening the overhead lockers and carrying cabin luggage and laptops with them. In that process, they are causing the biggest hurdle for an evacuation process – blocking of the main aisles.  One can hear passengers reassuring each other that nothing critical has happened, and there is no need to worry. The feeling of danger is low in the voices and faces of passengers and there is no sense of urgency in their movements (so much so, that someone has taken his mobile to capture all this!). Then in the 55th second of the video, one hears the voice that is presumably of the flight attendant. In a raised tone, they repeatedly ask passengers to leave their bags and jump out of the plane. Immediately (and finally!) the passengers sense the emergency of the situation that we can hear fellow passengers rushing others to leave the bags behind and get out of the plane as fast as possible. Some are even seeking God’s help. Evacuation now happens at the right pace, in the right manner.

One can be complacent that all the passengers of this Emirates flight got out of the plane in time and that all are safe. But this was clearly a near-miss incident. One cannot be oblivious of some critical mistakes that happened, which could have led to a major disaster. The right behaviour expected of the passengers is – as soon as an emergency evacuation is signalled, all should realise that a dire mishap has occurred, and respond by immediately rushing to the nearest exit, leaving behind their belongings locked in the overhead storage. Instead, in this incident, it is only in the 55th second of the video that people stopped bothering about their bags and laptops and did what was required to do in order to save their lives and the lives of other passengers. The trigger for this change in behaviour of the passengers came from the flight attendant’s tone of voice and the content of the instructions. Which then makes one curiously ponder – why couldn’t have this intervention from the flight attendants happened 55 seconds earlier?

Human beings by nature are overconfident and tend to ignore most risks unless otherwise the proof of risk is very salient. In several situations, more so in emergency situations, the overconfidence of humans should be deflated to generate the right action in them. Merely communicating the information about a risk will not achieve this. Instead, communication about risk should be embedded with right levels of emotions. Humans are driven to immediate action only when there is a FEELING of risk. The first 55 seconds of the video clearly shows that the feeling of risk prevalent inside the airline was inadequate for an emergency situation of this kind.

During emergencies, every second counts. And humans will continue to behave as irrationally as seen here. Therefore, the critical inquiry required from this occurrence is: What can the airline industry learn about human behaviour from this incident? What in the inflight attendants’ training need to be altered, so that they generate the adequate feeling of risk in these emergency situations, which will refrain the passengers behaving either complacent or too panicky? What is the right script and tone of voice should flight attendants use, to initiate the right action among passengers, in emergencies like this? Finally, what is the ideal communication strategy to convey risk  that will motivate humans to take appropriate action even a second earlier?

Nudging to Safety










A recent article in The Economist paints a rather grim picture of Road Safety. Fatalities due to road accidents could surpass HIV related deaths by 2030. Bulk of these fatalities happen in developing and underdeveloped nations.

BBC Future carried a story that features Final Mile’s work in using Behavioral Sciences to improve Road Safety. Human error is the overwhelming cause of accidents and fatalities. Nudging or Behavioral design interventions aimed at reducing driver errors is one effective way to deal with the human errors. There is an urgent need to go beyond plain awareness campaigns. Driving is a highly over-learned and non-conscious activity, one that is very complex involving many senses and skills. Interventions that impact at a non-conscious level, therefore are likely to make a better impact.

The story by BBC Future collates some of the interesting examples of such interventions. Read more here

Rise in ski helmet use, but no reduction in fatalities. Why?


UPDATE: Schumacher still in coma following skiing accident

The recent skiing accident of Michael Schumacher has shook the sporting world. The F1 world and many more people are praying for him. We also heard the impact was so severe that the helmet broke in to two. The doctors were sure that if it weren’t for the helmet, Schumi wouldn’t have even made it to the hospital. In this case, the helmet has played a big part in reducing the impact of the crash.

But, if we look beyond this individual case and examine the overall statistics on skiing accidents, helmet usage, head injuries and fatalities, there is a rather disturbing trend. There are news reports that suggest that while ski helmet usage has improved significantly, the fatalities due to head injuries have remained pretty much the same over the last 10 years. Helmet usage has tripled as compared to 2003. While there is a reduction in head injuries, the fatalities have remained the same. Ten year average fatalities from 2000 has been 41.5 fatalities per year, 54 fatalities having occurred in 2011/12. (NSSA facts). Of these 54, 36 were wearing helmets. (Skiing now might suddenly seem like a dangerous sport, but at 54 fatalities a year, its lot less dangerous than riding bicycles which lead to about 800 fatalities a year.)

Also, most of the fatalities involved Men, especially in the age group of late teens to 30’s. And a majority of these accident victims are above average at skiing, they’re not amateurs.

What would explain this ?

Overconfidence bias / Private optimism could be a credible explanation as far as the demographic of fatalities is concerned. There is research that supports a hypotheses that men tend to be more overconfident than women. An amateur would be cautious and hence ski at low speeds. An above average would be more susceptible to private optimism. Some 90% of motorists think that they are excellent/above average at driving. The believe that they are better than other drivers and that their chance of meeting an accident is lower than that of others. This could lead to people taking more risk.

The most intriguing observation though is this lack of correlation between increase in helmet usage and fatalities.  Here’s where John Adams’ take on individual risk management – the ‘Risk Thermostat’ could helpin making sense of this.  According to Mr. Adams, each individual has a specific level of risk-taking with which they are comfortable. If their sense of safety is increased, say by protective gear like seatbelts, helmets or systemic changes like ABS, their behaviour becomes riskier – they compensate for this increase in safety till the set-level is reached again. The safer we feel, therefore, the more risky our behaviour. There are studies that indicate that drivers who wear seat belts tend to drive faster. The net impact of ABS on car collisions has been negligible because drivers have driving faster and braking late. We have compensated for the safety feature. This is often referred to as “Offset hypothesis”

So, its likely here that those wearing helmets are skiing faster, taking more risks and becoming more adventurous, simply because there is an increase in overall sense of safety. So, in a strange way, the more safer we feel, the more risky our behaviour.

How can we solve this ?

While we improve the safety features, its important to induce a sense of vulnerability, a feeling of being unsafe. This could be through better design of safety systems and signage or by having interventions at point of action that introduce an element of vulnerability. The idea is not to take regressive steps like reducing safety gear or features. Safety standards should be high, but the place should feel a little unsafe.

For now, lets hope that Schumi pulls through.

Chicago transit authority – Right diagnosis. Wrong Prescription














We caught this piece of communication developed by Chicago Transit Authority(CTA). The basic point of this is to tell people that the train is faster than you think. There is a scientific backing to this misjudgment of speed. Our brain underestimates the speed of large objects, including trains. Often, while crossing tracks, even after spotting a train, we tend to attempt to cross because the train appears to be moving slower. (Leibowitz hypothesis). Look at this amateur video to see this in action.

Now, how do we solve this problem ? The approach used by CTA is based on the assumption that making people aware of this shortcomings is good enough to solve this problem. The belief is that people will take in this information, process it and put it to use when they are in such situation. The same kind of thinking that automobile companies adopt when it comes to warning about the distance of objects in the rear view mirrors.

This approach in our view is flawed.

For starters, the speed perception or underestimation is a non-conscious activity. It happens through automatic processing. We don’t actually stand next to tracks and carry out an accurate estimation of speed. We are not equipped with such capabilities, which is why we use speed guns and other measurement tools to judge speed accurately. We cannot presume that we can suddenly make this non-conscious process of speed judgement in to a conscious one. And that people have the time, intention and cognitive ability to judge the speed accurately. This is expecting too much. In fact it is likely that most people will not even remember this message while crossing tracks. They are likely to be pre-occupied with many other things and are likely to be in ‘Auto’ mode. This seems like a classic case of right diagnosis, but wrong prescription. Is there a better way to deal with this problem?

If the problem, fundamentally is at a nonconscious level, the solutions should work at this nonconscious level for it to make a definite and quick impact. The solution should make the brain recalibrate the speed of the train in an ‘Auto’ mode where it doesn’t need to deliberate and expend energy. These interventions have to be at the point of action. While it might appear that inside a train is close to being on tracks, mentally these are very different contexts. Being in the train and crossing the tracks on foot are very different contexts.

How can we get the brain to recalibrate the speed and get the judgement right. We can do this by providing stationary reference points. The highly successful ‘Yellow Lines’ intervention is one where the yellow lines act as speed references.











These are lines painted across the railway tracks either side of crossings. As these yellow lines disappear under the train, the brain can instantly get the speed judgement right and take a decision not to cross the tracks. The beauty with this intervention is that it works at a nonconscious level, has an instant impact and is low cost. Most importantly, it is at the point of action. And this has worked in reducing fatalities significantly in Mumbai Suburban railway network where hundreds of thousands of people trespass across thousands of crossings in Mumbai. At an average of 10 fatalities a day, it is the largest cause of unnatural death in Mumbai city. Yellow lines, coupled with other interventions have reduced the fatalities significantly and this case is well documented. Read the story in The Boston Globe and BusinessWeek
We often have this temptation to believe that making people aware of a problem will solve it. This seems to be the thinking at CTA. However, for us to see impact, we need to make it easier for people to correctly judge the speed of trains. Not by telling them that the train is faster than you think, but by helping them take a right decision quickly and easily when it matters.