You suck at risk assessment

(c) 2007 Kontaktabzug CC-BY-NC

(c) 2007 Kontaktabzug CC-BY-NC

There’s a new four-way stop sign in my neighbourhood where there used to be a two-way stop. Last week, my cab driver, clearly driving by rote, ran the stop sign then realized he’d done it. “Whoah!” he blurted out, “Good thing there wasn’t a cop there!”

Good thing there wasn’t a cop? Not “Good thing there wasn’t any oncoming traffic or a pedestrian with the right of way”? If you think getting a ticket for running a stop sign is a worse outcome than injuring someone or waking up in the hospital, you appear to be both lucky and unimaginative.

I was a kid when they introduced mandatory seatbelt use in my province. The counter-argument was always “I’d prefer to be thrown free from the crash” as if flying through the windshield at 60 MPH was the sort of thing you bounce back from.

I have a friend who disabled the daytime running lights on his car to avoid detection by the enemy, as if collisions were rare and snipers were an everyday occurrence.

Our intuitive risk assessment is terrible and there is a raft of research, both psychological and actuarial, on why and how. Informally, it comes down to this. When assessing the risk of a Bad Thing, we care more about How bad is the Bad Thing? than we do about How likely is the Bad Thing to happen? and How likely is the Bad Thing to happen to me?

Self-driving cars can’t come soon enough.

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