Why Do People Make The Risky Choice of Crossing a Railway Line?

An excerpt from ‘Indianomix’ which explains the behavioural nudge people need to stop crossing busy rail tracks.

6 min read
Why Do People Make The Risky Choice of Crossing a Railway Line?

It’s one of those niggling problems that never seem to go away and conversations around which always end in the realisation that only a shift in the mindset of people can truly stop the erroneous behaviour: People crossing busy railway tracks despite warning signs and texts, despite the obvious risk associated in the event of an oncoming train.

Why do they do that? What is the cognitive behaviour here that needs to be changed to prime the people for a new behavioural pattern?

Economists Vivek Dahejia and Rupa Subramanya answer questions like these and many others which plague modern India, questions which are almost always answered by a defeated “We are like this only”. Using behavioural economics, the two attempt to explain the unexpected oddities of India in the 21st century and offer fittingly innovative solutions to some of the problems we face.

Also Read: Mumbai’s Death Wish: A Train Journey With No Return Ticket

Cover of the book Indianomix Making Sense of Modern India. (Photo: The Quint)

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya’s book Indianomix, published by Random House India on 6 December. This excerpt is adapted from the sixth section of Chapter 2, “The Human Factor” in which they attempt to tackle the cognitive biases that result in people crossing busy railway tracks, or for that matter, hanging off the train compartments.


Does the risky choice of crossing a busy railway line make any sense? According to the cost-benefit story, it seems to. Beyond pointing out the danger to someone, any further attempt to cajole or coerce people into changing their choices would be illiberal and paternalistic, both cardinal sins for the economist and political libertarian. But that conclusion assumes that everyone doing the crossing is a rational, calculating machine. By now, we know that might not always be true.

Suppose the folks crossing the tracks aren’t always fully rational and are prone to cognitive failure? The Indian Railway’s traditional approach to deter people from crossing, as in much of the world, was to put up warning signs with stick figures and lots of explanatory text. But maybe the people crossing every day were just ‘filtering’ out these boilerplate warning signs and so underestimating the danger to themselves.

It’s more than likely that the folks (many of whom are poor) crossing the train tracks are succumbing, without realising it, to one or another kind of cognitive bias or failure. For example, they might be overconfident about their ability to cross safely, and so overestimate the odds in their favour. For another, they might be simply crossing out of habit, rather than thinking it through each time, a form of status quo bias.

An Indian slum alongside the road and railway track in Varanasi, India. (Photo: iStock)

The pervasiveness of such biases opens up the possibility of influencing people’s choice in a way that isn’t blatantly paternalistic.

The More You Know
In 2008, behavioural economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who were then both at the University of Chicago, published an influential and best-selling book Nudge.

As we’ve already seen, how choices are framed for an individual can make a huge difference on what they end up picking. A rational, calculating person wouldn’t be affected by how a choice is framed, but real people, with all of their built-in cognitive limitations, certainly could be. If we can ‘nudge’ people into making a better choice, Thaler and Sunstein suggest, not by coercing them but rather by presenting the choice in a different way, what wrong with that?

As we’ve seen, the poor, as especially susceptible to cognitive failures because of difficult circumstances, the case for thoughtful ‘nudges’ is, if anything, stronger in a place like India than in the Western context that Thaler and Sunstein originally had in mind.

A man crossing a railway track as a Mumbai local train approaches him. (Photo courtesy: FinalMile)

Biju Dominic, a former ad man and a co-founder of FinalMile, learned about the daily tragedies on the Mumbai rail system while teaching a class at the railway’s staff college. He felt that what was needed was a series of interventions or ‘nudges’ which would get people, who were obviously filtering out the generic warning signs, to realise the danger of crossing and make them twice before doing it. The railway authorities were impressed with his approach and he took it upon himself and [his consulting firm,] FinalMile to work on this pro bono.

[A notoriously dangerous station in Mumbai,] Wadala station would become their ‘live experiment’. The team carefully observed the pattern of crossings over a period of many weeks.

The first thing they noticed was that no one was crossing at the station but rather in between Wadala and the neighbouring stations in either direction. Many of those crossing were from a slum which was adjacent to one side of the station. They also deduced that the fatalities occurred at points where people were seldom crossing. Where crossing were frequent, no one had been killed. Part of the reason is that when lots of people are crossing and someone sees an oncoming train they shout gaadi (‘train!’) to warn everyone else nearby.

People who are used to crossing the tracks, often from the time they were kids, tend to underestimate the danger to their lives. This is a classic example of the ‘overconfidence bias’ [...] which is why so many people dangle from the sides of overcrowded trains when they’re clearly ignoring or underestimating the odds of being hit by a pole or falling off, which are also frequent occurrences in India.

They [FinalMile] designed three interventions, or ‘nudges’ in the language of Thaler and Sunstein, to try to make would-be crossers aware of the risks they were taking by crossing, but if they decided to cross anyway, to increase their chances of making it alive.

First, they painted alternate sets of railway ties (that’s the series of metal beams that connect the two ends of a track) a bright yellow. This was to help compensate for the psychological fact that people tend to underestimate the speed of large moving objects. With alternate sets of ties painted yellow, someone would be better able to gauge the speed of an upcoming train as it passed from the painted to the unpainted ties.

Alternate ties painted yellow to alert passengers of fast-moving oncoming trains. (Photo courtesy: FinalMile)

Second, they convinced the railway authorities to have the train drivers switch from a single long warning whistle to two short staccato bursts. This was based on neurological research, which showed that the human brain is more receptive to sound when it’s separated by silence.

Third, and most strikingly, they ditched the stick figures and fine print warnings not to cross, with a graphic panel in three parts of the wide-eyed horror of a real human being about to be crushed by an oncoming train.

They hired an actor to make it as realistic as possible. The purpose of this was to get away from the bland and generic warning someone’s conscious mind would filter out and appeal to the sensation of fear in the subconscious mind.


All three of these nudges were rolled out at the beginning of 2010 and kept in place for the whole year. The results were dramatic.

In the first half of 2010, the number of deaths dropped to nine, and in the second half there was only one fatality. That’s a drop of a whopping 75 percent from the previous year. The beneficiaries won’t show up in any statistics: They’re the people who saw the sign and decided not to cross, or were able to make it across because of the painted ties or staccato warning whistles. Sometimes, it’s the numbers that don’t appear that tell the real story.
FinalMile used graphic boards with a photo of a real person about to be crushed by a train for impact. (Photo courtesy: FinalMile)

The reality of pervasive cognitive biases — especially for the poor and those in greatest distress — coupled with the possibility it creates for ‘choice architects’ to influence people’s behaviour, makes for great opportunities: which can be exploited for good or ill.

It gives us a whole new lens through which we can look at public policy in India and other countries: and not just for the government, but for anyone in a position to deliver one or more nudges, which push people in one direction or another. Whether it’s our political leaders or a day labourer crossing the tracks, we’re all prone to make mistakes. We might aspire to the wisdom of the gods, but, when all's said and done, we’re only human.

(Selected and adapted from Indianomix by Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya, to be published by Random House India on Dec. 6, 2012. Copyright © by Vivek Dehejia and Rupa Subramanya. Printed by arrangement with Random House India.)

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