Eccentric’s Corner: The Risk Taker

Steve Casner isn’t the world’s most cautious person: He flies small planes and he sometimes jaywalks, among other risks. And he’s made a career out of studying exactly why, despite all of our technological advances, we may have taken safety about as far as it can go.

By Gary Drevitch, published on May 2, 2017 - last reviewed on July 3, 2017

There’s a chart at the front of research psychologist Steve Casner’s book, Careful, depicting the rate of fatal accidents, or “unintentional injury deaths,” in the United States. It displays a sharp and steady decline, from about 110 such deaths per 100,000 people in the 1930s to just about 40 per 100,000 by 1990. But then the rate plateaus, and declines only a little further; in fact, around the start of the 21st century, it begins to creep upward. It seems that in spite of the efforts of people like Casner, who has devoted his career to safety, primarily in aviation through his work at NASA and elsewhere, we simply can’t seem to make ourselves any less accident-prone. And Casner is pretty sure our brains are to blame.

GROWING UP, Casner says, he was not especially cautious: "I was a typical kid, which means someone with no experience and no judgment whatsoever. But I lived, which I attribute to luck more than anything else." (Photo by Eva Casner)

People often joke that they didn’t have car seats or bike helmets when they were kids and everyone “still turned out fine.” Are they right?

No. The people who are not in those conversations are the people who weren’t fine. They died. So you have a sort of selection bias there. If you have 1,000 people and 997 of them are wiped out, the other three could sit around and say, “What’s the problem? We’re fine.” If you look at the number of children injured or killed in car crashes back then, it was pretty bad, and those of us who survived should probably credit luck rather than an amazingly safe lifestyle. We’re in a much better place today, and the next generation might be sitting around 40 years from now saying to us: “You people were crazy. You put your hands on a steering wheel and guided the car down the road?” They might laugh at us, and I hope they do.

Why do statistics show that we’re now getting less safe, or at least no safer? 

We’ve hit a wall, partly because we’re coming up with stuff that makes thinking about being careful more complicated. The phone in your pocket rings while you’re crossing a street, and you just pull it out and—wait a second: Are you proposing to pay attention to two things at the same time? Have you studied the limits of human attention? We overestimate our ability to do two things at once, and I would advise you to learn about that before you answer that phone in the street. 

Are phones that dangerous a distraction?

The risk itself seems subtle: You get this really cool little rectangle that you call your phone and, all of a sudden, there is a new danger in front of you, although it wasn’t meant to be one. It’s not our intention for this technology to make the world more dangerous, but it does. And there will just be more and more of it.

There’s a minuscule risk of harm every time we jaywalk, you argue, but if we jaywalk every time we cross the street, our luck can run out. 

The concept of unique invulnerability makes us believe that negative outcomes are less likely to happen to us than to others. I used to be a chronic jaywalker. So was my grandfather. But when he did it, he didn’t have to worry about a driver being on the phone. He could assume that drivers were more or less paying attention to what was in front of them and count on their vigilance. That’s not a valid assumption anymore. 

We’d probably be much safer if we just followed the safety guidelines available to us. Why don’t we? 

It’s the worst of our vulnerabilities. There are so many things working against us when it comes to following advice, it’s like a psychological freeway pileup. We have a lot of advice coming at us all the time, and it’s only increasing. But we have problems understanding it—and if guidelines are not immediately clear to us, we dismiss them right away. And then there’s ego. We hate being thought of as ignorant about anything, so we engage in egocentric advice discounting: We just insist, “I’ve got this.” 

How did you decide to make safety your career?

I was in an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program studying psychology and medicine—really, human performance. When I went looking for a job, I found that what people pay someone like me to do is either to help others be more productive or to help them not get hurt or killed. I just had a little more compassion for the hurt or killed thing, so I took that job instead, and I fell in love with it. I’m just destroyed when I read or hear about someone getting hurt or killed. You know that’s a life changed, if not extinguished, and it seems like the biggest contribution anyone could make is to interfere with that.

How has aviation safety changed since your career began? 

In the cockpit of a major airline, you can hear the change in the pilots’ language. The captain will say to the first officer, “I’m going to do this and then I’m going to do this and in case I screw it up, you’re going to let me know.” That’s out on the table. There’s no shame or ego. They recognize that to err is human, and that they are human: “I’m going to make an error, and that’s where you come in.” 

Have other fields made similar advances? 

In 2009, Atul Gawande’s book, The Checklist Manifesto, about using checklists to prevent errors in intensive care, came out, and those of us in aviation were blown away. We thought, This is like the 1940s. If a pilot ever did anything without a checklist, they’d be told, “It’s over. You’ve failed.” It’s not even a possibility for us. And Gawande was talking about how these ideas were just starting to get out in medicine eight years ago.

What’s your advice for anxious flyers? 

When I see someone nervous on a flight, I tell them: The worst thing that’s going to happen to you is that this plane is going to land and you’re going to get out of it. That’s when it’s all going to fall apart. Don’t be nervous now; get nervous when they open that door, because then you’re going to do something crazy like get in a car or go into your house, where half of all fatal injuries happen.

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