While We’re on the Subject of Denmark…

Mikael at Copenhagenize wrote me recently to note that the Politiken, the newspaper mentioned in the previous post, has for the past few years been making it a point to write up the details of every traffic fatality that occurs in Denmark.

The deaths, represented starkly in a field of red crosses (moving your cursor over each reveals the details behind the incident). The website, in Danish, can be viewed here.

As I discuss a bit in the book, statistics for traffic deaths are a bit confounding. Unlike large-scale events, like the recent train crash in Los Angeles, they tend to involve small numbers of people (often just one), scattered about the country. These individual tragedies add up to a severe problem on an epidemiological level — yet this presents its own problems. We hear, for example, at the end of the year, an annual toll of highway fatalities, but as the work of Paul Slovic has demonstrated — people feel less compelled to respond as the statistical number goes higher (and as an aside, most people in the U.S., in surveys at least, don’t know how many people are killed in traffic every year).

And then, when talking about taking steps to reduce fatalities, weird factors, like a kind of “proportion bias,” creep in. In a paper by Fredrich, et al., titled “Psychophysical Numbing: When lives are valued less as the value of lives at risk increase,” published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the researchers found, to quote Slovic, “that people required more lives to be saved to justify mandatory anti-lock brakes on new cars when the alleged size of the at-risk pool (annual braking-related deaths) increased.”

So what Politiken is doing presents a few possible responses. One, it might raise people’s awareness of traffic risk (at least those who read the newspaper). The second, though, is that tallying up the numbers may “numb” people to a certain extent, making them feel that such deaths are inevitable (to be fair, the newspaper does give the details behind each). In that vein one wonders whether it would be more effective to write at length about only a few deaths, but at great length, making the victim seem like “more than just a number.” Slovic’s research has found that people are much more willing to make donations to save the life of a refugee when it’s only one refugee they’re told about, rather than masses of refugees. Of course, with traffic fatalities, there’s no one to actively save, which also makes campaigns difficult. In any case, I do think Politiken is to be commended for its novel approach (Streetsblog was doing a similar thing for the New York City-area but seems to have stopped) to an enduring social problem. Curious for any opinions one way or the other.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 7th, 2008 at 4:47 pm and is filed under Etc., Risk. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Transport column to me at:

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage:

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For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
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Order Traffic from:

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



October 2008

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