Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Risk Takers Are Typically Also More Rational

During the first week of the year 2000, Sam Schmidt, an Indy Car race driver who was favored for the upcoming season, slammed into the wall on turn two during testing at Walt Disney World Speedway, leaving him a quadriplegic.

He fought back, got an MBA, bought his father’s company and with a  partner fielded Schmidt Petersen Motorsports, inspiration enough given the risks of racing.  But a new study shows that race drivers are actually more rational than the general population.

Fourteen years after his accident in the days leading up to last month’s Indianapolis 500, Schmidt drove a souped-up Corvette Stingray for several laps around the historic oval.

Using a semi-autonomous technology so he could handle the car with head movements, he hit 100 m.p.h.  Click here to see how it works.  Essentially he bites down to brake, tilts his head left or right to steer and tilts his head back to accelerate.

The development is part of a US Air Force-funded research project, but a new study shows that even amateur race car drivers are actually much “more rational” about choices than the average population.

Like motorcycle riders now who, on average, are in their 40s compared to the average of 24 during in the 1980s, the researchers found it isn’t risk they are immune from.  They are just better immune to “possibility bias.”

This is the overweighting of low probabilities that keep people from trying new things.

Instead they are less likely to overemphasize low-probability events including failure.

The latter fall on the risk-adverse “small-t” part of the T-Personality Spectrum refined by Temple professor and researcher Dr. Frank Farley over the last three decades.

Those who are immune to “possibility bias” are the “Big-T” or “T-Positive” personalities who take risks because they are motivated by intensity and innovation.

According to Farley, these “Big-T” personalities just have a much higher tolerance for uncertainty.  As nation’s go, over its history the USA has been a “Big-T” country according to Farley.

Over the course of its history, Durham, North Carolina has always been a “Big-T” community as are others who focus on being distinct.  “Big-T” is also why Durham’s destination marketing is more innovative than others.

While those who aspire to be “major league” by merely emulating others at the sacrifice of sense of place are probably “small-t” cities.

Farley also classifies gamblers and criminals as “T-Negative” personalities, a group that includes far too many business executives and government officials involved in “legal corruption” too.

When you take lessons to ride a motorcycle, you learn to sense your limitations, ride as though everyone is out to get you and always be alert to escape routes should a problem arise.

In general, motorcycle riders are expert at rationally calculating risk.

You also learn that the death rate for motorcyclists is 30 times higher than it is for drivers of motor vehicles overall, but that this rate falls dramatically depending on type of bike, e.g. sport bikes vs. cruisers like Harleys, and by speed and the age of rider.

I always wear a full-face, modular helmet because injuries occur more often to the jaw than the top of the head.  But ironically, 75% of the fatalities on sport bikes involved riders who also wore helmets of some type.

Interestingly, only half of those riding cruisers or standard motorcycles were wearing helmets when fatalities occurred, another reason perhaps that different types of bikes need to be differentiated for premiums.

But you don’t wear a helmet so you can take risks, you wear it because others who are less rational in vehicles of all type take them irrationally.  That may be why many race drivers feel safest while on the track.

Controlling speed, avoiding alcohol, staying alert and the wisdom of age bring the accident rate for riders down to near that of cars.  Overall, the fatality rate and crash injury rate for 100 million motorcycle miles traveled is 24.93 and 440 respectively.

The latter figure has fallen nearly 60% just since 1989 when I was just more than a third of the way through my now concluded career.

The biggest danger to riders is the same one it is for all vehicles: drivers of cars, trucks and SUVs who don’t pay attention.   And as we know from this assessment of what happened recently on Mt. Rainier, stuff happens no matter what you do to mitigate it.

Motor vehicle drivers are more likely than motorcyclists in my opinion to underestimate risk.  A new study by the National Highway Safety Administration computes that motor vehicle crashes costs society $871 billion annually, nearly $900 for each person living in the United States.

Nearly 70% of that comes from the lost of life as well as pain and decreased quality of life due to injuries. 

Nearly 75% of these costs are shouldered by non-participants through taxes, insurance premiums and congestion-related losses. Funny we don’t hear Tea Partiers whining about this!

The cost to society vs. the individual total $200 billion alone including nearly a fifth for direct medical care, another reason the new federal healthcare insurance requirement makes sense.

Here’s a thought for those obsessed with repealing this requirement: It may be your right to bang yourself up in a vehicle accident, but I shouldn’t later have to pay for it with my taxes or through other means.

Ride or drive stupid if you want, but insurance should be the minimum requirement.

The direct cost of a motorcycle fatality where failure to wear a helmet is involved is nearly $1.3 million alone.

But the direct economic cost to society for not wearing a seat belt is 11 times higher.

This failure results in killing 3,350 people and seriously injuring another 54,300 each year, costing society $13.billion alone, while using them prevented 12,500 fatalities and 308,000 serious injuries.

Using seat belts, which at one time was vigorously opposed by conservatives, saves society $69 billion in medical care, lost productivity, and other injury-related costs.

Two other new studies are disturbing.

One by University of Michigan researchers found that children of minority parents were far less likely to be given age-appropriate restraint while riding in a vehicle compared to the the children of white parents.

Other studies have often found that parents who are minorities, based on their own experiences, often try to counterbalance what they expect their children are going to face in society by being overly flexible, but this is one area where the requirement is a matter of life and death.

Motor vehicles are the leading cause of death and injury for children.

The other study, by the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium (OTREC,) finds something even more disturbing.  An ongoing pilot study finds that pedestrians who are black are passed by twice as many cars before someone yields at an un-signalized marked crosswalk.

Black pedestrians were made to wait 32% longer than white pedestrians.  Subtle forms of racism surface when information and decisions must be processed very quickly.  This may also lead black pedestrians to take more risk in crossing.

Another new study by researchers at the University of Texas and UCLA finds that “executive functions,” the set of skills so essential to success in life and should be taught and learned at a very young age, also play a major role in our assessment of risk.

These include attention (shedding distractions,) working memory and self control, especially the latter.  Too little perhaps and we underestimate risk, too much and we overestimate the possibility or risk, resulting in “possibility bias.”

Both are harmful, one leads to truly dangerous choices, the other to a life not led.

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