[FOUNTAIN] A Modest Traffic Safety Proposal

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[FOUNTAIN] A Modest Traffic Safety Proposal

In Korea, for every 10,000 cars on the road, 8.3 people die in automobile accidents each year - the highest rate of road fatalities among the 30-member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Experts argue that if 90 percent of drivers wore seat belts, the number of traffic accident fatalities would drop 20 percent. That is why police have mounted a campaign to force drivers and passengers to wear seat belts.

Seat belt laws, antilock braking systems and air bags are all part of efforts to reduce traffic casualties. Yet, will encouraging broader adoption of these help Korea step down from the shameful first place in the fatality list?

The answer is "No," based on the theory of risk homeostasis supported by researchers in human behavior. The theory argues that people behave in such a way that if design improvements lower risk, they both consciously and unconsciously take more risks. Therefore, the rate of accidents remains constant despite the changed conditions.

If the rate of risk goes up, people tend to be more cautious, while people pay less attention when risk decreases. The probability of fatalities on the road equals the probability of getting into an accident multiplied by the probability of dying in that accident. In this calculation, the second probability is reduced by wearing seat belts and using air bags. Yet their use may prompt the first probability to go up. According to a survey conducted in the United States, when safety designs improved, more accidents occurred although the rate of fatalities decreased, therefore canceling out the difference. In fact, slightly more pedestrians and cyclists died in accidents involving cars after the seat belt law was enforced.

An economics professor at the University of California pushed the theory of risk homeostasis to the extreme. He suggested placing a sharp spike on the steering wheel rather than an air bag, causing drivers to die immediately in collisions. The professor argued that such a measure would clearly reduce the number of traffic accidents.

Korea's drivers also testify to the validity of risk homeostasis. On Korea's highways, 54 percent of passenger car drivers wear seat belts, as do 41 percent of bus drivers. Fewer than 25 percent of truck drivers buckle up, Korea Highway Corporation figures for 1999 show, although those drivers frequently have accidents.

Drivers of large vehicles often fail to wear seat belts on the logic that in a crash, the other party would inevitably sustain most of the damage. That is why they are the outlaws of the road.

Traffic accidents in Korea would plummet if a sharp spike were installed on the steering wheel in those vehicles.

by Cho Hyun-wook

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