Traffic safety has long relied upon the theory of deterrence to maintain positive public health outcomes. That is, we have assumed the following:
(1) The human being is a rational actor,
(2) Rationality involves an end/means calculation,
(3) People (freely) choose all behavior, both conforming and deviant, based on their rational calculations,
(4) The central element of calculation involves a cost benefit analysis: Pleasure versus Pain,
(5) Choice, with all other conditions equal, will be directed towards the maximization of individual pleasure, (6) Choice can be controlled through the perception and understanding of the potential pain or punishment that will follow an act judged to be in violation of the social good, the social contract,
(7) The state is responsible for maintaining order and preserving the common good through a system of laws (this system is the embodiment of the social contract),
(8) The Swiftness, Severity, and Certainty of punishment are the key elements in understanding a law's ability to control human behavior.
(taken from Robert Keel's article here)
Examining these ideas, however, launches us into a whole mess of social issues, particularly those dealing with behavior. I don't believe that the deterrence theory actually describes individuals' likelihood of risky driving; people are not inherently rational, and so threat of punishment is not always the most effective way to initiate change.
Rather, I would argue that these guys have a much more compelling viewpoint concerning individual risk assessment and driving behavior. (Bear with me, I know it's an article about deranged world leaders, but it really does apply ...)
Lebow & Stein argue that four types of risk-based decision-makers exist:
- Risk-prone gain maximizers: Likely to drive distracted because they gain something.
- Risk-prone loss minimizers: Likely to drive distracted because they are afraid of losing something.
- Risk-averse gain maximizers: Less likely to drive distracted because not doing so brings benefits.
- Risk-averse loss minimizers: Less likely to drive distracted because they are afraid of losing something.
They also argue that the most dangerous among these are the risk-prone loss minimizers, because they have the proverbial something to lose.
I would contend that this is also the case. People don't want to put their cell phones down in the car because they're afraid of missing an important communique; an inflated sense of self-importance has encouraged us to imagine that the actions of the whole world hinge upon our ability to answer our phones. Imagine having that ability ripped from your grasp.
Just another theory in the toolbox of effective public health promotion .... Today's lesson? Identify and target your audience.