Social Psychology of Risk Challenge

Social Psychology of Risk Challenge

Road closed and flood signThe last few days have seen unprecedented rain and flooding on Australia’s East Coast. Several people have lost their lives and many from attempting to drive through flood waters.

The slogan “If Its Flooded, Forget It” rolls off the tongue news presenters and politicians. In their wisdom, Safe Work Australia have regurgitated the same old rhetoric:

While wet weather and the threat of flooding continues across many parts of Australia, we remind you to not drive through floodwaters – do not put yourself or your workers at risk.
Stay up to date with the latest forecasts and warnings at and always follow advice from emergency services and your local council.
For local work health and safety laws relating to working in bad weather, contact your WHS regulator

Nothing has changed in terms of compliance and judgment based solutions since we first published this article below, soon after serous floods in 2011. Has any attempt been made to understand why people make these decisions and then implement higher order prevention strategies?

Social Psychology of Risk Challenge

Last week, in my suburb, 5 people drowned trying to drive across flooded roads – I wrote a bit about it here: Why Do We Ignore Warning Signs-Sometimes With Tragic Results?. One of our blog authors, Rob Sams,  had a similar experience with storms in his town the week before (see Am I Stupid I didnt think of that).

Our local paper posted on their Facebook Page the following question:

Police and Moreton Bay Regional Council will be working together to stop people driving into floodwater. What do you think would be the most effective solution?

What followed in most of the 60 odd comments really troubled me and I hope that authorities don’t formulate their response based on these ignorant and judgmental responses. I felt like I was reading traditional or zero harm workplace safety committee meeting minutes or incident investigation report. Has “safety” done this to society or has society done this to safety?  The vast majority of responses fell into 3 categories:

  1. Compliance and punishment: $10,000 fines, make them pay for rescue, leave them to drown, take their license, fire a warning shot, film & shame them, void insurance, new laws
  2. Engineering Controls: Flashing lights operated by sensors, gates that come up out of the road, build flood proof roads, road spikes, and,
  3. Stupidity and Common Sense.

Regular readers of this blog would appreciate that there are no simple solutions to complex problems like this. The authorities need to focus on upstream (excuse the pun) solutions and we need to understand why people do what they do, apart from because they are stupid.  The current focus, sensationalism and debate is likely to dissipate very quickly and be resurrected next time it rains a lot.

So, what is some intelligent advice that we could give The Council, Police and Safety Regulators?

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