Best of Blog: Dangerously Uninformed

Every society has it's dogmas, the conventional wisdom that, through the prism of history, seems backward at best, downright bizarre at worst. Ancient people believed the gods controlled the weather and would withhold rain if they were unhappy. They didn't understand weather patterns and would make all kinds of sacrifices as a result. While humans knew for more than a thousand years prior to Columbus that the world was round and that the earth rotated around the sun, Galileo and others were not allowed to voice such statements. In the Middle Ages, there was a widespread belief that people became sick from doing immoral acts or even thinking impure thoughts. Knowledge of bacteria and infection as well as the development of penicillin was some time off.

In all of these times, there have been heretics, people who thought differently, who challenged the conventional wisdom despite the general consensus that they were wrong or, even worse, dangerous for doing so. 

We have many such dogmas today -- sadly, there are probably a number that I still believe -- that history will not be kind to. One that I question, an act which has branded me a heretic in many circles, is the notion that there is a direct correlation between increasing auto mobility and prosperity. The more places we can reach by car, and the faster we can get there, the better off our economy is and the more prosperous our society. There is a sliver of truth to that belief but it quickly breaks down once you go beyond a first order of connectivity. Still, we've reshaped an entire continent, spending trillions in the process and committing ourselves to trillions more, based on this belief alone.

After all, sometimes when we sacrifice that virgin it rains the next day, powerful confirmation for a species prone to confirmation bias.

I know a lot of you are heretics on this like me, but let's stand back and realize that we are still a small (but growing) minority viewpoint. Articles like the one I centered Dangerously Uninformed around demonstrate how conventional wisdom dominates, even in places where you wouldn't expect t find it like the insurance industry. As Strong Towns advocates, we need to be prepared to engage people of all backgrounds and callings because the change we are trying to bring about is ultimately a societal one.

I'm really happy to be able to report that we crossed the 600 member threshold yesterday. Thank you, everyone. Our goal is 800 by the end of the year and that means we still need 195 of you to sign up. Help us make 2015 an even stronger year for spreading this critical message.

I’ve often wondered about the actuarial approach used by auto insurance companies, but I’ve never had the data or specific insight to really question it. For example, why doesn’t my car insurance company care how many miles I drive in a given year? The past five years, I’ve put 80,000 miles on my car. That may seem like a lot, but back when I was doing planning work statewide I put nearly 200,000 miles on a car in that same amount of time. Most of those miles were late at night, a dangerous time to be on the road, as is evidenced by the number of moving violations I racked up (small town speed traps were a professional hazard). Have my insurance rates changed now that I’m driving a lot less? Of course not, how would the insurance company even know.

I am aware that some auto insurance companies charge different rates based on your home address. Again, just looking at my own area, there are places in my zip code that are absolutely treacherous to drive, with high accident rates and a significant number of fatalities. There are other areas where the worst you are ever going to have is a fender bender. My insurance company has never gotten that fine-grained in determining my rate, at least not with me.

Now, as part of writing this article, I did go through the Geico application process. The form there did ask how many miles I drive in a year, how far my commute is and how many days I go into the office. Maybe my insurance company (which isn’t Geico) would ask this as well if I were a new applicant. Even so, they aren’t following up on that. Maybe it is bad form – poor customer experience – to be pestering me about my miles driven, but it would seem to be in the interests of their business model to do this.

These are just a couple of the oddities I’ve pondered over the years, so when our friend Steven Shultis of Rational Urbanism sent me this article along with some contradictory data, I wasn’t surprised at all.

It appears that Allstate is claiming Massachusetts drivers are “the worst” in the nation. Here is from the article, which is from Steve’s home town of Springfield:

Springfield drivers are the fourth-worst in the country, and Boston drivers were the second worst. Worcester, at the center of the state, was the worst, home to the most dangerous drivers in the country, Allstate said.

If you live in Springfield, you are 85.8% more likely to get into an accident than the average American driver (a number of such precision that the Talebian side of me automatically knows it is a ridiculous stat). So why is Springfield, and Massachusetts in general, home to the “most dangerous” drivers in the country?

"I wish I could tell you why," said Allstate spokeswoman Julia Reusch. "More congested cities tend to be more dangerous. We really just want to decrease car crashes. We want these communities to be safe places for people to live and drive."

So, if we are to believe Allstate, the more congestion we have, the more dangerous things are. Dangerous for whom?

According to the site, Massachusetts ranks 50th (that’s out of 50, Allstate) in traffic deaths per 100,000 population. That 50th as in last as in best. Massachusetts experienced only 4.79 traffic deaths per 100,000 population in 2010, a tiny fraction of what the far less congested state of Wyoming experienced at 27.48. In other words, if you want to avoid death – which seems to me to be the ultimate danger – you are far, far safer driving in Massachusetts than any other state.

In fact, if we look at the five worst and compare them to the five best, we can easily test the validity of the hypothesis that congested cities are more dangerous.

What is Allstate doing here and why should we care? First, understand that they are not ascribing “danger” to death but instead to accidents. Put more succinctly, it is dangerous to their balance sheet when they need to pay claims and, gosh, in cities there are a lot of claims. Does danger to their balance sheet from fender benders actually mean danger to you, the city dweller? Absolutely not. There isn’t a safer place to drive.

The obvious problem here is that the incentive for Allstate is not to save lives but to save dollars. While there is a rough correlation, defining “safe” in terms of accidents/claims instead of deaths feeds precisely into the wrong-headed stroad design mentality that infects our cities. It reminds me of the AAA spokesman’s quote I shared a few years ago with my series on the diverging diamond.

Mike Right, spokesman for AAA Missouri, said the new design is a positive change, as it reduces construction costs while moving traffic faster and more safely. As motorists have adjusted to roundabouts, American drivers will learn and adapt to the diverging diamond, he said.

Reducing congestion and getting traffic moving traffic faster might cut down on the raw number of claims and the amount insurance companies pay out, but it doesn’t reduce fatalities. Quite the opposite. The way to reduce fatalities is to eliminate stroad design and instead focus on building either streets with very slow traffic or high-speed roads with very limited access.

Unfortunately, that’s not what cities (hungry for their share of auto-oriented growth) want. It isn’t what builders, developers and contractors want. It isn’t what construction unions want. And it isn’t what insurance companies want. And they all speak louder than you.

How many fender benders equals one life? That may be an offensive question, and it might not be how they ask it internally in the actuarial chambers at Allstate, but it is the question in play. If someone tries to tell you it is more dangerous living in a congested city than driving the wide open roads, tell them they are dangerously uninformed.