Car cushioning causes casualties

To reduce the societal and public health impact of road accidents, policymakers should incentivise against bigger cars, according to to BI Norwegian Business School’s Luk Warlop. Tim Banjeree Dhoul finds out more

Bigger cars serve as a ‘cushion’, making drivers feel more secure and inducing them to take more risk, says recently published research from Warlop, in conjunction with Bart Claus from IÉSEG School of Management in France.

Prior research has shown that people tend to choose bigger cars because they make them feel more secure and conversely, that bigger cars are more likely to be involved in accidents than their smaller counterparts. Warlop and Claus’ research is designed to show the link between the two.

Across two experiments, they found that an association with a bigger car caused participants to take more risks, both on the road itself and in a simple risk test. The personalities of those involved were simply not a factor in what they term ‘car cushion hypothesis’, which is why the researchers believe it has strong relevance for policymakers looking to improve public health through road safety.  

In the first experiment, participants drove either a small or large Toyota (Yaris or Avensis) along the same route in a simulator, with their behaviour monitored. Results showed that those in the large car had more reckless behaviour – they drove faster, accelerated more, decelerated later, and used their brakes more than those in the smaller cars.

In a second experiment, the researchers set out to take the underlying principles beyond driving, using a BART (Balloon Analog Risk Task) test. Participants were asked to imagine themselves driving either a small (A-class) or large (C-class) Mercedes and then to inflate a balloon by pushing a button. The more the balloon was inflated, the greater the monetary reward on offer but the drivers stood to lose everything if the balloon popped. In this test, those who were shown the larger car beforehand were more likely to inflate their balloon more. The suggestion here is that the perceived increase in safety on the road that comes from the larger car can be linked with generalised risk-taking.

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