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Why do people fear highways?

In surveys, people often say that they feel the most nervous when driving over bridges and highways. They're less nervous driving around the city.

The reality, though, is that highways are a lot safer than smaller roads. For example, the stats from 2007 indicate that 1.32 people passed away for every 100 million vehicle miles that were covered on local urban roads. For urban highways, the numbers fell to 0.92 people per 100 million vehicles miles. For interstates, the stats fell again, all the way to 0.54.

What becomes clear is that you're statistically in the least danger on the interstate, by a wide margin, but this is also where people are the most nervous. Why are they so scared when they're actually so safe?

One reason that drivers cite is a feeling of being stuck or trapped. On local streets, you can turn every block and go a different direction. On interstates, without driving into the grass or the median, you have to wait for an exit. It could be miles.

The same problem crops up on bridges. You can only go one direction. You have no options. There's no escape if you need it.

What drivers really want is control. It's the same reason that some people feel far more nervous as passengers than drivers, even if the risk level is the same. They want that control.

While there is irony to feeling nervous on safe interstates and feeling calm on smaller, more dangerous roads, it is understandable. If someone else causes an accident, you have little control over it. When you're then hurt in that crash, you need to know if you have a right to compensation.

Source: Freakonomics, "The Irony of Road Fear," Eric A. Morris, accessed April 27, 2017

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