Risk Perceptions and Stress during the Threat of Explosion from a Railroad Accident

By Lange, Lori J.; Fleming, Raymond et al. | Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Risk Perceptions and Stress during the Threat of Explosion from a Railroad Accident


Lange, Lori J., Fleming, Raymond, Toussaint, Loren L., Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal


The derailment of a train carrying hazardous material resulted in the evacuation of an entire Midwestern community. Risk perceptions and stress were assessed in evacuees and controls (N = 90) during the acute phase of the disaster while threat of explosion was looming. Consistent with the social amplification of risk theory (Kasperson et al., 1988), risk perceptions for routine transportation technologies did not become amplified in evacuees during the technological disaster; however, some elevation of risk perceptions related to less familiar chemical and nuclear technologies was evident in evacuees as compared to controls. Investigation of the relationship between risk perceptions and stress response showed that high risk perceptions for transportation technologies were associated with elevated emotional and psychological stress, and poorer concentration in evacuees compared to controls. Results suggest that monitoring risk perceptions related to the cause of a technological accident is useful in predicting variance in evacuee response during a disaster.

Accidents due to train derailments are fairly common occurrences in the United States, with an estimated average of 5.7 train accidents per day between 19902000 (U.S. Department of Transportation, 2001). Whereas physical injury and loss of life may be results of these mishaps, other - less apparent - behavioral and psychological consequences also are likely (Baum, Fleming, & Davidson, 1983; Bowler, Mergler, Huel, & Cone, 1994; Chung, Farmer, Werett, Easthope, & Chung, 2001; Hagstroem, 1995). Research on technological mishaps and disasters has shown that technological accidents can greatly impact upon psychological, behavioral, and physiological functioning (Gleser, Green, & Winget, 1981; Rubonis & Bickman, 1991). As a result, accidents that do not necessarily result in immediate injury or death may still result in social and psychological disruption (Baum, 1991).

The railroad accident under investigation in the current study resulted in great social disruption due to the derailment of a freight train in the small community of Weyauwega, Wisconsin. The entire rural community was evacuated due to the massive threat of explosion caused by four propane cars rupturing and catching fire, in a train carrying an estimated million pounds of liquid propane. The evacuation was unexpected and disruptive, especially as people were unprepared for an 18-day displacement from their homes, schools, and places of work. Prior research on the railroad accident at Weyauwega has demonstrated that evacuees showed higher levels of stress hormones, greater cognitive deficits, more negative affect, and a greater number and degree of psychological and somatic symptoms of distress as compared to participants at a demographically similar control site (Lange, Toussaint, & Fleming, in press).

The train disaster at Weyauwega shares major similarities with other technological disasters as it was human-made, full of uncertainty, powerful, and was sudden and unpredicted (Baum, Fleming & Davidson, 1983). Technologies such as railways are designed by humans to work efficiently and reliably, without breakdowns or mishaps that threaten human lives. The occurrence of a technological disaster, such as the Weyauwega train accident, reflects a failure of systems that were once under control and highlights the fallibility of human creations. This failure may compromise public trust in experts' ability to manage risks and people may lose confidence in responsible individuals and agencies (Baum, Fleming, & Singer, 1983).

People who are directly affected by technological disaster may be especially likely to experience amplified perceptions of risk if they perceive technology as no longer controllable or understood. However, empirical work in the area of technological risk perceptions (Slovic, 1987) has shown that the perceived risks of railroads are moderate compared to other hazards, such as nuclear and chemical technologies (Slovic, Fischhoff, & Lichtenstein, 2000). …

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