Applying Behavioural Insights to Emergency Decision-Making
Behavioural insights can help address emergency decision-making to support NSW agencies and policy-makers reduce fatalities in the community. We look at the issue of driving through floodwater.
Driving through floodwater
Flood-related fatalities have been an ongoing problem in Australia since the early 1900s. Deaths during floods rank second only to heat waves in natural disaster fatalities. Approximately 159 people died from flooding in Australia during the last 15 years, with half (53%) due to driving through floodwater. NSW, together with QLD, represent 74% of flood fatalities. Rural and regional areas in NSW are especially at-risk.
Driving through flood water is a pressing issue, and has been a persistent problem behaviour that has been tough to shift.
The following reflects how we worked through this behavioural issue, and brainstormed problems, during a recent masterclass we ran with NSW State Emergency Service (NSW SES).
Defining the issue
Who is driving through floodwater? The evidence tells us that both young people (aged under 29 years) and those aged over 60 years are overrepresented to drive through floodwaters. Additionally, drivers in 4WDs and SUVs are especially likely to drive through floodwater (48%).
Where is this happening? The available evidence tells us that the biggest flood fatalities occur when people are en route to a destination where they have a time-sensitive commitment (such as getting to work on time) or when they are driving home.
When does this happen? We know that 58% of fatalities happen close to home (within 20 kilometres) and a similar proportion of fatalities are locals (58%).
What is the problem behaviour that lends itself to a BI intervention? There can be many answers to this question, and part of BIU’s role was to work with NSW SES masterclass participants to narrow down some options. Is it simply to stop people driving through floodwater? Should people turn around when faced with floodwater? Or should the public be encouraged to stay in place and find shelter?
To better understand the options, we looked at the barriers and triggers that lead people to drive through floodwater.
Identify behavioural barriers or triggers
There are behavioural biases acting as barriers to the desired behaviour of avoiding the flood water. Drivers who venture through flood water seem to overestimate their ability to survive and underestimate the risk, displaying an optimism bias. Research by Julia Becker and colleagues suggests that this is even more the case if drivers are very familiar with the environment. This same familiarity with the environment and a particular road could also mean that the status quo bias is at work. Deviating from the usual route taken regularly, such as their route home, would require more effort and planning than sticking with the tried and tested.
Drivers may also consider themselves atypical, using the representativeness heuristic. They might think: “only old ladies or inexperienced youngsters get stuck”. Yet research shows the biggest flood fatalities in Australia are men (up to 80%). One of the most devastating floods in NSW in recent times occurred at the Shoalhaven, just over half (53%) of the people who drove into flood water were men, 38% were women, while the rest were unknown (9%).
Based on their expertise, NSW SES discussed how the emotional decision-making was an especially strong pull. It’s not just about driving to a time-pressed situation or the desire to get home, but rather why individuals might feel compelled to continue to reach their destination. If people have children waiting for them, or cattle that need tending, or some other priority they feel strongly depends on them, they will drive through floodwater to fulfil their commitment.
In Figure 1, we modified the work of Irving Janis and Leon Mann to look at critical decisions faced in emergencies.
Figure 1: Decision-making in an Emergency