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Go ahead, safely
On highway driving, your chances of flying safely, and America's chronic problem with assessing risk
Suppose you're driving at night on a rural Interstate highway where the posted speed limit is 70 mph and you encounter some patchy fog, modestly limiting your visibility. The prudent thing to do, typically, would be to ease off the gas and drive at perhaps 60 mph, or whatever your headlights will adequately illuminate.
■ But if another vehicle comes along and is traveling at a consistent speed of 70 mph, it might actually be safer to follow their tail lights (at a distance accounting generously for braking) at the higher speed than to go it alone at a lower one. As long as you're at no meaningful risk of rear-ending the lead car, then following them transfers to the other driver the risk of hitting something obscured by the fog and offers you a comparatively high degree of confidence that nothing new entered the lane in the few seconds between you.
■ Traveling faster may be objectively more dangerous for a vehicle traveling alone or in the lead, but it might be relatively safer for a vehicle following at a prudent distance if it offers the trailing motorist the assurance that the path ahead has been "cleared" by the vehicle ahead. Risk can be a vexing subject, in no small part because it can offer different answers whether judged objectively or relatively. But quite often, it is also dynamic -- changing as its contributing factors change.
■ Few skills are as important to learn as the ability to calibrate and re-calibrate risk. Risk mis-assessment is one of the reasons banks fail, among many other pertinent effects.
■ And yet it is not at all obvious where people are supposed to learn the skill of calibrating risks in school. Is it a branch of mathematics? Of science? Of social studies? There isn't a clear answer.
■ Nonetheless, it is obvious that too few people really grasp its importance. Every commercial flight begins with a three-minute safety briefing that frequent fliers could deliver by heart, even though modern commercial aviation is indisputably the safest form of mass travel ever invented. Yet 40,000 people will die in American road crashes this year, and because of the base rate fallacy, the public will scarcely take notice. Countless other examples could be raised.
■ Getting Americans comfortable with calibrating risk as a matter of routine behavior would be a massive net positive for society. And if one generation of parents is poorly-prepared to train their children, then somewhere, somehow, that training needs to be institutionalized. The great question is: How and by whom will the next generation be trained?