Wednesday, 25 December 2013

The Tale of Two Rivers - Humans assessing Risk

Because of the storms affecting public transport on Christmas Eve I drove to Bookham, Surrey, to collect someone who had been planning to spend Christmas with us, and who could not come by rail because of the disruption. The journey South onto the M25 and round to Leatherhead was remarkably fast and while the journey back was slower most of the delay was cause by an accident on the M3 which caused a very long queue to form on the M25. On safely returning home I turned on the news and two rivers were mention by name because of the serious effects of the storm.

The first was the River Lemon, at Newton Abbot, Devon, which I know from my childhood days. There had been an unfortunate incident when a dog had fallen into the flooded river and its owner had gone in to rescue it and had drowned. As seems usual in such very sad cases, the dog succeeded in climbing out further down stream. The problem is that in such situations there are a number of possible outcomes and people are bad at weighing up the risk, particularly when the desired outcome is highly probable but one of the unwanted outcomes is highly undesirable, as in this case.

The other river mention made me realise that I am also bad at accessing risks when there is a very high cost of making the wrong decision compared with the possible benefit of being right.

In my journey home I crossed the River Mole, which runs between Bookham and Leatherhead.
Flood Warning Area 25th December
On approaching Cobham from the Effingham direction the traffic halted. There was water on the road flowing from right to left for a distance of about 50 yards. One car was stationary of the left hand side and appeared to be abandoned. Several cars in front of us turned round in the road and retreated in the direction from which they had come.  However two of the larger cars decided to go through on the right hand side of the road and I watched them very carefully. In my younger days I had learnt to drive in a rural area where there were a number of fords.  I reckoned that it would be safe if the water was no deeper than the rim of the tyres. As far as I could see the water was almost exactly at that level so I went ahead and got through safely - saving perhaps 15 minutes if I had gone back and found a different route.

Of course things worked out as planned - but if things had gone wrong and the car had stalled the problems, with two old age pensioners have to abandon the car could have been at best very traumatic, especially as I now know that the river levels were still rising...  OK - this time my luck held - but at my age (and with an elderly passenger) I need to to consider the costs of being in error more carefully.

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