Decision-making issues: Framing

Speaking with a friend of mine over Christmas highlighted how one influencing factor regarding decision-making can make a life saving difference. You may already know about ‘framing’ with regards to effective decision making, but in case you don’t here’s a brief explanation to set the scene. Framing means how the problem requiring a decision is described and put into context and plays a significant part in how a problem is approached.

For instance, the same problem posed to two test groups in numerous scientific studies, consistently concludes that groups will arrive at different solutions depending upon how the problem is described or ‘framed’. For instance you might frame a problem to one group by stating that ‘We can’t afford to fail when addressing problem x.’ and describe the same problem to the other group as ‘How could we improve upon problem x?’

The second manner of posing the need for a solution invites all group members to think freely and discuss ideas that, hopefully arrives at a decision regarding a recommended solution. The first manner of posing the question causes the group to be very selective in what they propose and they may hesitate regarding a final decision on whether to proceed with a chosen solution.

Speaking with my friend this past Christmas break he told me about the terminology debate that he had been involved with at his place of work. He is the Senior Policy Officer with Transport SA. (South Australia) Basically, anything bigger than a car that travels on any road in South Australia must adhere to rules and guidelines assessed by my friend. This is so that road safety is maintained, of course; but also for a whole range of other reasons that many of us, myself included, may have never even though of. Reasons like, has the road been built to a capability to support the weight of the vehicle? Is the vehicle too long and take too much time to progress through an intersection or level crossing? Can it navigate the turns or roundabouts for that type of road or terrain?

Nonetheless, a recent debate he was involved with was the renaming (Framing) of the safety ramps for heavy vehicles on the M1 freeway through the Adelaide Hills as it descends to the city.

For those of you who have never visited Adelaide, South Australia (by road anyway) may not know that the main freeway from the Eastern States must negotiate the Adelaide Hills, which involves a continuous steep decent over 4 kilometres ending at a set of traffic lights. Therefore, in the interest of public safety, two safety ramps have been built alongside the freeway at strategic points so that if any heavy vehicle should have its brakes fail can pull off onto a steep safety ramp which will bring the vehicle to a stop.

When the new Adelaide Hills freeway was rerouted and redesigned some years ago the safety ramps were also improved to include a long uphill pit filled with round pebbles that, when a truck drives into the bed of pebbles, will slow its speed dramatically and assist with bringing the vehicle to a safe stop and also stop it rolling backwards back onto the freeway afterwards. The very same technique is now used on racing car circuits to slow and stop race-cars that run off the track.

Because of this redesign the safety ramps were renamed ‘arrestor ramps’ as they not only were a ramp but ‘arrested’ the speed of the truck.

However, improved safety ramps have resulted in an increase of runaway trucks in the past few years. One such incident recently resulting in the death of three people.

How can such improvements result in the opposite effect as was intended? Initial inquiries are alluding to the unwillingness of truck drivers to use an ‘arrestor ramp’. Preferring to attempt to try and stop their vehicle by other means. Apparently the term arrestor plays an important part in the decision-making process when dealing with the emergency of a runaway heavy vehicle.

The framing of the emergency solution looks to have resulted in many more drivers neglecting to use the safety ramps because of the inconvenience of their vehicle being arrested by the pebble beds and the inability for them to repair their truck and continue on their way. Instead they will require towing out of the arrestor bed, which will incur cost and increase any delay they may suffer.

Currently, and quite likely, Adelaide’s Arrestor Rams look set to be relabelled ‘Safety Ramps’ yet again in an effort to ‘frame’ a sensible decision in the face of possibly a life and death situation.

Framing is important, so think about it next time you or your organisation is grappling with its decision-making process whilst solving a problem.