Surprising Climate Change Effects: More Fatal Crashes, Less Food Safety

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On extremely hot days, fatal car accidents are more likely and police officers tend to do fewer of their duties, according to an MIT study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

(Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Hot temperatures increase fatal crash risks and incidences of food safety violations, a study finds.
  • In extreme weather, police officers make fewer stops and regulators make fewer food safety inspections.
  • Researchers hope the study helps agencies consider how to help employees.


Add deadly car crashes and food safety risks — and the officials overseeing them — to the list of things affected by climate change.


Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered that in unusually hot or unusually cold weather, fatal crashes increase and police stops decrease. They also found that in extreme heat, food safety risks increase and inspections decrease.


Future global warming could increase government oversight during cooler seasons, according to the MIT study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The flip side, however, is that during hotter seasons, warming could reduce regulatory oversight while simultaneously increasing the hazards government workers are supposed to oversee.


“Hot temperatures are basically bad for human functioning,” Nick Obradovich, co-author of the study and a research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab, told CNN. This is true across a list of things scientists have studied: Sleep quality, mood, mental health, risk of suicide and work productivity are all “harmed by hot temperatures.”


(MORE: Extreme Temperatures Likely Through 2022 Worldwide, Scientists Say)


Obradovich and his collaborators, Dustin Tingley, and Iyad Rahwan, analyzed a massive amount of data about police stops and fatal vehicle crashes. They also examined millions of food safety violations — for restaurants and food production facilities — and food safety inspections. 


They established the usual range of temperatures for cities and states and then examined “what happens if you have, all else equal, just an unusually warm day in that range?” Obradovich explained to CNN.


“Do these meteorological conditions simultaneously amplify the public health risks officers are tasked with overseeing, like violent crime and vehicular crashes,” the trio asked in the study. “Previous studies have found a predominately linear relationship between higher temperatures and increases in violent crime.”


If there was no change in police officer productivity because of hot temperatures, the number of stops should “increase with the risks officers are tasked with overseeing,” the study says. Instead the researchers found stops decreasing because of high temperatures and they concluded that officer productivity is the likely reason for the reduction in stops. 


“Thus, our results indicate that the meteorological conditions that produce the highest risk of crime and vehicular crashes also reduce police oversight of these risks,” the researchers noted.


We already know that higher temperatures increase the risk that food could be contaminated by bacteria. Meanwhile, restaurant and food plant workers suffering under extreme heat could be sluggish and less meticulous. However, the chance of a restaurant or food plant being inspected goes down in hot temperatures — just when they may need them the most, the study found.


Harvard professor and study co-author Dustin Tingley said to U.S. News and World Reports, “This in no way is a blame situation – in some respects it’s an empathetic thing. These are folks who are going out and doing their jobs to protect the rest of us. And under extreme conditions, that’s a really challenging job.”


The authors say they hope their research will make agencies consider how to help their workers – whether cops or health inspectors or elsewhere – cope with the heat.


“It’s an open question whether these agencies have the capacity to do that,” Tingley said. “If people have better air conditioning, these things could dissipate. But that ignores the broader message that climate change is real and that it impacts people’s performance.”

2018-08-15 18:33:18

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