Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences within the Weather Enterprise. Part 3. Road Weather

“…I am the master of my fate,  

I am the captain of my soul.” – William Ernest Henley, from his poem Invictus  

In this third piece on Integrating Social and Behavioral Sciences within the Weather Enterprise, we zero in on road weather. To some, the NAS Report chapter focused on this this might superficially seem the result of a special pleading, or an accommodation to funding from the Federal Highway Administration.

But that would be miss-identifying cause and effect. U.S. highway deaths with weather as the cause or contributing effect average some 7000 each year. This is an order of magnitude great than the sum of other weather related deaths combined. Add in some 400,000 weather-related traffic injuries and you have a massive public safety challenge. By themselves, these statistics motivate interest in whether social science, properly applied, might be able to bring losses down.

And the statistics relate well to our individual experience. Ask yourself: when were you ever terrified by the weather? Chances are good your answer would include incidents in an automobile. You drove into a thunderstorm with heavy rain and/or hail, or into a blizzard or snow squall – and suddenly, with little or no warning, found yourself with zero visibility front and rear. In rain or hail, the noise was deafening, so there were no audible cues. And at the same time the car’s traction was compromised. You were in trouble if you stopped, and in trouble if you kept moving.

But an even bigger factor comes into play. At home, when hunkering down in the face of tornado- or hurricane-force winds, or hail and/or lightning, your options are limited, and your personal responsibility limited in like measure. But on the road, especially when driving, you’re responsible, not just for the lives and well-being of family and friends in the car, but also the safety and well-being of those in every vehicle around you, and the health and safety of some number of others behind them. You might argue that commercial airline pilots, who shoulder similar responsibilities for larger numbers of passengers in an even more weather-vulnerable environment, deserve equal focus. But the fact is, their problem has over many years received a great deal of highly-structured attention. Pilots get weather-related training from the get-go, fly through inclement weather repeatedly in simulators, operate under protocols established (on the basis of decades of well-documented experience) by their airlines, the airframe manufacturers, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the  National Transportation Safety Board. By contrast, automobile drivers are winging it. They’re operating on the basis of little more than a couple of questions on a drivers’ exam they last took decades ago, and perhaps their most-recent memory of driving on snow or ice or in rain. Pilots are subjected to competency and fitness tests on a regular basis. They’re always operating in constant communication on weather and air-traffic conditions and within a highly disciplined framework. Drivers represent diverse ages, multiple languages, a spectrum of abilities (and attention) and their communication is rich in distractions like texting and calls to people on every topic but road and weather conditions. Discipline is limited to passive lane markings and traffic signals.

And yet in the spirit of Invictus, we drivers are captains – like captains, we don’t get to duck responsibility when behind the wheel.

Individual driver behavior, and social behavior of the clusters of drivers and vehicles, aggregating all the way up daily urban commutes or, as the case this fall, massive and extensive evacuations in the face of hurricanes Harvey and Irma (Caribbean islands, by contrast, lacked the same kind of evacuation option in facing Irma and then Maria) constitute an important area of research and application for social sciences, and more than a little urgency.

(Getting a bit beyond the realm of the Report), this picture is complicated further by rapid social change and technological advance. Urbanization and coastal development are on a stunning pace, proceeding on time frames short compared to the recurrence of extreme events and therefore allowing little opportunity for automobile drivers to learn empirically and make incremental adjustments to changing circumstances in the face of extreme weather. Meanwhile, battery-operated autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence are coming. The first trend promises to change the vulnerability of vehicles to weather extremes, their utility in the face of bad weather, and the availability of recharging at times of great urgency and peak demand, including evacuations. Speaking of evacuations , if current approaches to car ownership are replaced by ride-sharing of a variety of types to reduce the number of vehicles on the road during fair weather, there may simply not be enough individual vehicles available for evacuation during weather emergencies. Lastly, it’s not hard to imagine that emergency managers will turn to artificial intelligence to supersede and suspend individual control of vehicles during major evacuations, taking over every detail of their management and execution.

A little social science on the implications of all this would seem welcome – with the goal of anticipating and heading off problems in advance versus doing post-event autopsies after things went disastrously wrong.  Please give Chapter Four of the Report a special read.

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