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Driving into Danger: Perception and Communication of Flash-Flood Risk

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  • 1 Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas
  • 2 Laboratory of Tree Ring Research, and School of Geography and Development, The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona
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Abstract

Floods, particularly urban flash floods, frequently disrupt traffic, constraining mobility and exposing motorists to danger. Flood risk managers educate the public on the dangers of driving through flooded roadways, yet losses to life and property continue to occur. This study integrates cultural psychology and risk perception theory to explore how cultural and situational factors influence motorists’ behavior during flash floods. Flood risk managers in Tucson, Arizona, collaborated in the development of a questionnaire mailed to local residents in 2007. Self-reported levels of trust, self-efficacy, social incorporation, and situational factors were analyzed with respect to whether respondents stated that they have or have not driven through a flooded roadway. Respondents demonstrate complex reasoning when confronted with flooded roadways, rather than simple or consistent risk-taking or risk-avoidance behaviors. Participants indicate high levels of trust in official warning messages and share information about floods within their social networks, highlighting the success of education campaigns. However, flood conditions are not always clear, so motorists seek additional sources of information and weigh the dangers against other situational factors on a case-by-case basis. Factors that influence respondents’ decisions include the prior successful crossing of other vehicles, presence of signs and barricades, presence of passengers, risk of personal injury or damage to the vehicle, and the availability of flood-related information. The results also show that individuals who know how to avoid floods, including by asking others for advice, are less likely to enter flooded roadways, and thus communicating further instructions will empower more motorists to avoid danger.

Corresponding author: Ashley R. Coles, a.coles@tcu.edu

Abstract

Floods, particularly urban flash floods, frequently disrupt traffic, constraining mobility and exposing motorists to danger. Flood risk managers educate the public on the dangers of driving through flooded roadways, yet losses to life and property continue to occur. This study integrates cultural psychology and risk perception theory to explore how cultural and situational factors influence motorists’ behavior during flash floods. Flood risk managers in Tucson, Arizona, collaborated in the development of a questionnaire mailed to local residents in 2007. Self-reported levels of trust, self-efficacy, social incorporation, and situational factors were analyzed with respect to whether respondents stated that they have or have not driven through a flooded roadway. Respondents demonstrate complex reasoning when confronted with flooded roadways, rather than simple or consistent risk-taking or risk-avoidance behaviors. Participants indicate high levels of trust in official warning messages and share information about floods within their social networks, highlighting the success of education campaigns. However, flood conditions are not always clear, so motorists seek additional sources of information and weigh the dangers against other situational factors on a case-by-case basis. Factors that influence respondents’ decisions include the prior successful crossing of other vehicles, presence of signs and barricades, presence of passengers, risk of personal injury or damage to the vehicle, and the availability of flood-related information. The results also show that individuals who know how to avoid floods, including by asking others for advice, are less likely to enter flooded roadways, and thus communicating further instructions will empower more motorists to avoid danger.

Corresponding author: Ashley R. Coles, a.coles@tcu.edu
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