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Car Surfing, and Other Bad Ideas

Of the four main factors influencing road safety: roadway and traffic engineering, automotive engineering, driver performance, and driver behaviour, changes in driver behaviour are considered the most important.  Understanding how human behaviour can be changed is therefore key to reducing the risk of harm on our roads. Dr. Leonard Evans, the author of Traffic Safety (Science Serving Society, 2004) and our favourite traffic safety expert proposes four types of influence on driver behaviour:

·         fear of adverse consequences.
·         social norms.
·         mass media.
·         legislative interventions.
Recently, we have seen at close hand examples of the latter two—for good and bad—at work.
Take the positive influence of recent legislative intervention. In British Columbia in September 2010, the laws regulating drinking and driving changed in two ways: the first reinforced a blood alcohol content of .05 as a threshold for legal consequences; the second made these consequences immediate—impaired drivers are separated at the roadside from their cars and their licenses—and effective enough to deter repetition by making the recovery costs both time-wise and moneywise significant. The government’s goal was to reduce drunk-driving fatalities by a third in three years.
The first sign of effectiveness was an almost immediate business decline for bar and restaurant owners. The second was the statistics: between October 2010 and April 2011, with more than 10,000 vehicle impoundments throughout BC, there were 30 impaired driving fatalities, compared to the prior five-year average for the same period of 61 fatalities. Likewise in the first six months of 2011, in the lower mainland, there were seven impaired driving fatalities compared to the prior five-year average for the same period of 21 fatalities. RCMP Superintendent Norm Gaumont, head of Lower Mainland District Traffic Services said, “I can’t think of any other legislation where we saw such an immediate change in driving behaviour.”
Mass media influence can be harder to pinpoint.  The recent death of a young BC man – age 21 – from the head injuries he suffered after falling off a moving car on which he was balancing in a surfing-like stance was the second recent car-surfing tragedy in BC.  Car surfing is a stunt reportedly first performed in the 1985 movie Teen Wolf and then in the Jackass movie series, in Grand Theft Auto video games, and in YouTube clips.
Neurosurgeons at Case Western University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio reportedly found that spikes in car-surfing injuries during the past decade neatly overlapped with the release of the above-mentioned depictions.  In trying to understand why teens undertake such risky behaviors, they concluded that, as one reporter summarized it, “while some stupidity among teenagers is to be expected, really, really stupid ideas come from the popular media.”
Albert Einstein is said to have noted that “one difference between genius and stupidity is that stupidity has no limits”.

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