Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Do-or-Die Christmas, and Its Traffic Accidents

This month as I’ve driven around on my Christmas-season errands, I’ve come upon far more accident scenes than I would normally expect. I haven’t inquired about the accidents but I have heard that two of the accidents I passed were fatal. It seems I can’t drive 20 miles in any direction without seeing police cars attending to an accident scene. In the last two days some of this could be attributed to the unfamiliar traffic mix of commuters, shoppers, and travelers all sharing the same road, but that doesn’t come close to explaining the high rate of accidents when compared to past holiday seasons. I was nearly in an accident myself last weekend when the car I was in narrowly missed a metal cabinet or similar object that skidded along the roadway for fifty yards after falling off a truck. Besides the actual accidents, I have seen far more than the usual number of drivers rushing through intersections without regard for traffic laws or other vehicles. Second-hand reports from friends in England and Australia say that accidents and near-misses during this holiday season are not limited to the United States.

An abrupt increase in accident rates occurs when people are taking uncharacteristic risks, and that seems to be the story of this Christmas shopping season. It’s a measure of consumer time pressure, but also of inflexibility as people aren’t willing to scale back their plans to fit their capabilities. Economic literature describes the way people become willing to take greater financial risks, signing up for Ponzi schemes for example, in periods of declining opportunity, especially recessions. It would seem that this phenomenon also applies to the driving risks people are taking in the current Christmas shopping season. I must emphasize that the high-risk driving decisions come from only a small fraction of drivers at any particular place, perhaps around 1 percent, but this is enough to change the flow of traffic as a whole.

The dynamic of declining opportunity can be misleading. People mostly don’t perceive that opportunities are declining but rather that opportunities are harder to find. This creates more of a do-or-die attitude about each opportunity, even something as fleeting as a Christmas celebration. The feeling is something along the lines of, “This Christmas has to be a success because there is no alternative.” It is the do-or-die approach that leads to the high-risk decisions that create traffic accidents and other unintended consequences. Hollywood celebrates the do-or-die idea in war and asteroid movies. The current situation is not nearly so dire as the ones depicted in the movies, but there must be something about the current situation that makes it seem comparable to the Hollywood disaster stories to a significant number of Christmas shoppers. It will be important to try to identify the cultural causes and to see whether this feeling becomes a trend. If you are out on the roads with Christmas shoppers, please be alert to the drivers who are in an especially frantic mood. Be safe, and have a merry Christmas.