Road safety: leveraging positive externalities

I’ve often argued that giving road users the means to video record traffic around them not only gives them a tool to protect themselves from liability, but that if cameras are widely adopted they can be expected to reduce undesirable behaviour. This clever ad for the Fly6 rear-facing camera for bicycles nails it:

Vulnerable road users are especially, well, vulnerable as drivers become less courteous and more aggressive, and as distracted driving surpasses drinking and driving as a cause of crashes. That “people do the right thing when they know they’re being watched” is well-documented (as long as one defines “the right thing” as conformity to social expectations). Video camera technology is now reaching the point where the size, weight, video quality, recording capacity, and battery life of cameras not only make a “dash cam for bicycles” possible, but the price of the cameras is dropping rapidly. We are on the verge of having a practical product available at a price many cyclists would be willing to pay.

Here’s the thing though: this might be the start of a bigger change than simply having more cyclists riding around with cameras. On an individual basis, some cyclists with cameras will certainly benefit from documenting incidents and being better able to prove liability. But what’s really interesting is that cameras are being introduced into a social system, and the mere existence of cameras can be expected to reduce the very adverse behaviours that the cameras were designed to document in the first place. Furthermore, once the prevalence of cameras in the cycling population reaches a sufficient level, we can expect drivers to be less aggressive towards even those cyclists not using cameras because, to an inexpert eye, the Fly6 looks like an ordinary bicycle tail light.

Fly6 rear cameraStandard LED bicycle tail light

See? It’ll be pretty hard to tell the difference from 50 feet away.

The upshot? With a sufficient number of bicycle cameras on the road, it will become general knowledge amongst drivers that cameras like the Fly6 are commonplace but they won’t know who’s riding with a camera and who isn’t. That’s called a positive externality: a safety benefit that is enjoyed by cyclists who did not incur the cost of purchasing a camera themselves. And that’s a good thing.

We’re going to see significant adoption of video recording devices amongst drivers and cyclists over the next few years. As I write this, Fly6 has smashed their AUD$95,000 Kickstarter goal by raising over AUD$215,000 with 10 days remaining in their fundraising deadline. Another recent Kickstarter campaign for the Rideye forward-facing camera has been similarly successful. The market is clearly now ready for devices such as these. This wasn’t the case even a year ago, when a Kickstarter campaign for the Spectacam video camera system, which recorded both forward and rear-view video, proved unsuccessful.

I’ve owned a Countour HD sport video camera for a couple of years, and I can mount it on my bike to document traffic incidents when I ride. The thing is, I often don’t use it. Why? The device is inconvenient: mounting it on the bike is clunky, it’s too heavy to have on my helmet for long rides, and it has insufficient battery life and memory card capacity for a typical road ride. One important feature of the Fly6, Rideye, and Spectacam is loop recording; all other sports-oriented video cameras currently on the market don’t have an option for loop recording, so they simply stop recording when the memory card fills up.

Some commentators have characterized the proliferation of video recording by citizens in public spaces as a movement towards a Big Brother mass-surveillance dystopia. But it’s actually anti-Big Brother: it gives individuals the means to record their surroundings in public spaces where others could do them harm—including recording the police. This is empowering, and in fact turns the panopticon on its head: rather than the state or a central authority doing all the watching, the incentive for social conformity comes from the people on the streets themselves.

The increased availability of cameras for both cars and bicycles will not just provide victims of road crashes with documentation for damage and injury claims; hopefully the knowledge that dangerous or aggressive behaviour may be recorded will lead to improved behaviour by all road users, making it safer for everyone. Concerns about safety are consistently cited as being among the biggest deterrents for cycling. If the adoption of camera systems improves perceived safety, then the resulting increase in bicycle ridership leads not only to safety in numbers, but savings in health care costs resulting from increased physical activity and the improved health in the population overall. The benefits of increased safety goes far beyond reduction of crash injuries.

Bicycle video cameras are coming, and they are part of the solution. It’s a win for everyone!

No, I asked for ANTI-microbial soap

A few weeks ago a batch of widely-used anti-microbial hand soap needed to be recalled due to dangerous bacterial contamination.

Oh dear.

Health Canada’s recommendation was to “not use [the contaminated product] or any other antimicrobial foaming hand soap that you cannot identify from a dispenser” [emphasis mine]. Which created a bit of a conundrum: if you couldn’t identify the product in a dispenser, was it safer to not wash your hands?

Challenges and ironies of health messaging

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has a nifty quick “bike benefit calculator” on their website. It’s intended to promote cycling as a transportation choice for commuting to work. It’s basic and delivers a simple message: cycling instead of driving can save you money.

I have to say I’m left scratching my head a bit about how they chose to communicate the “health benefits” derived from cycling to work instead of driving.

At right is what the calculator shows me when I plug in my 10 km one-way commute to work (I often ride to work, or I did until this happened last week). Don’t get me wrong: I love a double double and a doughnut as much as anybody. But measuring health benefits in terms of the tonnage of doughnuts and extra-sweet coffees I can consume to put my caloric balance right back where it would be if I were driving my car seems… to miss the point somehow. Think of what fitness gains I could realize if I didn’t nullify my expenditure of nearly 150,000 calories per year riding to and from work by replacing those calories with junk food?

While I find myself chuckling at the irony of the cycling-for-Timmies metric, it does raise a serious question: how to sell the benefits of behaviour change to an audience that might not be already physically active? Perhaps the CBC used the coffee-and-doughnut metric because they had a sense that people might be concerned about trying to maintain their weight, and that the concept of junk food “treat” rewards would be appealing? A more direct method—caloric equivalent of a pound of fat, say—might have similar (but admittedly less Canadian) appeal, but taken too simplistically and literally, it can generate unrealistic values. For my 10 km commute for example, if I didn’t eat more than I would if I drove my car, using CBC’s caloric estimate I’d have burned the equivalent of about 41 pounds of fat. That’s an unlikely real world scenario for a multitude of reasons. For starters, I eat a bit more when I exercise regularly, so my weight loss wouldn’t be nearly so significant.

For people who aren’t already physically active, providing a compelling reward metric can be difficult for social marketers who work to promote less-polluting, less-congesting, and healthier transportation choices. This year, after a several months of regular bicycle commuting, I shed 14 pounds, but my biggest pay-off was a significant increase in cycling speed and power—a benefit that has had direct positive impact on my cyclocross racing performance this season, and which is far more compelling for me than a wheelbarrow full of doughnuts. And this is the challenge for social marketers, urban planners, and health promotion advocates: different people respond to different incentives.

So, join me in relishing the irony of the Timmies health benefit metric, but also reflect on how this illustrates a fundamental challenge in promoting the benefits of behaviour change to a diverse population.

And yes, I’ll admit it: bicycle commuting has allowed me to treat myself to a doughnut or two from time to time as well.