According to a report on NPR and other media outlets about traffic accidents in the United States, Boston has the riskiest drivers, and Fort Collins, Colorado has the safest. The ranking is based on a study by Allstate Insurance, and while interesting to see such rankings, we should wonder whether the reporting represents another example of the tendency to worry too much about individual fault when mistakes occur and not enough about problems with the system within which people operate.
Maybe there are important differences between drivers in Boston and Fort Collins. More likely, however, is that other factors are more important (e.g., city size). In particular, there is good reason to think that there are important differences in traffic engineering and other measures taken by public officials in Boston and Fort Collins to compensate for the inevitability of human error. As the New York Times reported earlier this year, Sweden is considered to have the world’s safest roads, and it has gotten there because it “assumes human imperfection at every turn, and places the onus of mitigating its effects largely on traffic engineers.” Successful reforms for medical malpractice and other kinds of human error also have relied on engineering changes that limit the harm that a mistake can cause.
Instead of headlines that say Boston has the riskiest drivers, it may be more accurate to say that Boston has the riskiest traffic system.
(Allstate itself sends mixed messages. On one hand, it titles its study as a “Best Drivers Report;” on the other hand, Allstate refers to the ranking as a “Safest Driving City Ranking.”)