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Residual Risk And Social Perception Of Hydrogen

For a long time, risk assessment process was considered as of the relevance of the technicians or experts. However, with the recent changes in both international and European juridical context the public and other entities of the civil society became and are recognised as being concerned by the decision aiming at reducing the risks; and are then involved in the risk assessment and risk management process. The Aarhus convention on “Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters” (1998) have influenced a lot of current national approaches to risk assessment. In France for example, this convention was introduced through the law n° 2002-276 of February 27th 2002 on “the democracy of proximity” and more recently the law n° 2003-699 of July 30th 2003 on “industrial and natural risks prevention and damages amends”, and its 1st February 2005 decrees of application including that “Local Committee of Information and Dialogue” must be created for all industrial Seveso High threshold site. Let notice that even if the juridical and technical wills are present, the involvement of different people (stakeholders) raised practical problems: how to go toward a common understanding and a co-elaboration of common decisions.

Risk perception research paradigm(s)

There are two major frameworks for studying the views on risk by the public involved, respectively, a largely anthropological approach that seeks to characterise risk perception by reference to social structures (“ways of life”). The other and rather more dominant approach, sometimes called the psychometric paradigm, attempts to characterise the underlying factors behind the perception of risk by the public (and various sub-populations defined by, e.g., age, education, gender, profession, ethnicity etc.) by methods refined by psychologists who identify such factors as types of personality or heuristics and biases behind judgments about probability estimates. However, both approaches demonstrate the fact that the risk management process (identificationtion, assessment, control) aims at reducing the uncertainty a stakeholder has concerning a done situation. One can think that the only competent person to do that is the “expert”. The objective would then be to reduce the gap between the expert and the non-expert person and create a common way of looking to “risk” and its causes and consequences.

Risk perception research approaches

It has been known for long that lay people tend to overestimate low-frequency events and underestimate high-frequency events. But it was not till the late 70’s that it was discovered that that there is, one the one hand, a low correlation between lay estimates of risk and direct measures of subjective seriousness of a large and widely delimited set of activities, but on the other hand, a strong correlation between the perception of risk and two main dimensions: the level of dread or perceived disastrousness (imaginability of the hazard) and the perceived controllability of the hazard (familiarity and predictability). Four approaches to risk perception exist: two approaches that insist on the “decisional dimension” of risk perception and two other approaches on the “contextual dimension of perception”. The first approach to risk perception is based on economics paradigm. This approach status that, in a risky situation, each rational actor knows the possible results of a decision (losses and gains) and are able to define the chance (probability or possibility) of a given result. Each rational actor aims at maximising the utility. This first approach consider that: (i) stakeholders (actors) are all similar in their perception and (ii) each risk perception depends on “probability” and “consequences”. The second approach based on a psychometric paradigm focus on perception biases. This approach recognise, in addition to the quantitative criteria that make risk perception “probability” and “gravity of the consequences” the existence of some other “qualitative aspects” like: novelty, familiarity, controllability, acceptability, redoubt ability, etc.). Two biases of perception are here listed: “the availability bias” and “the catastrophe potential”. The first bias makes a direct correlation between “information availability” and “stakeholder correct perception” of a done situation. The second bias states that perception do not only depend on “observable facts” but also on “potential consequences”. These two first approaches have omitted the heterogeneity of “stakeholders” and the heterogeneity of the context where they live. The third approach is a sociologic one. This one study how do people perceives risk in their diversity using both quantitative and qualitative approaches. By insisting on the importance of the socio-demographic profiles of the stakeholders and their individual’s history, the sociological approach tends to consider each risk as equivalent. The fourth approach, to risk perception, takes into account the diversity of both people and risks. This approach is based on the cultural dimension of perception. This approach reveal that risk percpetion depend on stakeholders’ values and on the way their conceive knowledge.

Empirical studies of risk perception of hydrogen technologies

There have been a small number of published studies of public perceptions of the risk of hydrogen technology. There is, of course, an old history of hydrogen applications (the Hindenburg airship; H-bomb; but it is not known how important such associations are)

The following studies of risk perception of hydrogen technology for transport applications have been identified:

The EU-funded CUTE project which has tested the introduction and operation of H2 buses in London, has collected public perception of hydrogen technology for buses.

Method: telephone survey, N=414.

Results: 45% heard about H2 vehicles, 35% support the introduction of H2 vehicles, 60% need more information, 4% gave “danger” as the first words that come to mind when hearing the word hydrogen, 22% “positive”,13% “explosive/flammable”, 13% fuel/energy.

LBST project (Ludwig-BOolkow-Systemtechnik) in in co-operation with Ludwig-Maximilians University of Munich:

Method: surveys of respondent attitudes
Sub-study 1: The attitudes towards hydrogen of secondary students in three schools
Sub-study 2: In 1997 the first hydrogen bus was introduced in Munich, and the passengers of this bus were surveyed.
Sub-study 3: Students who were among the bus passengers (Sub-study 2) and compared their answers to those of the students questioned during Sub-study 1. This gave an indication of how the experience of using hydrogen transportation affects the attitude towards this new fuel.

Results: the often-expected spontaneous association of hydrogen with danger or past accidents like the Hindenburg airship was not confirmed. Generally the attitude of the interviewee towards hydrogen was positive. Contact with hydrogen technologies was shown to have a further positive effect on attitude towards the fuel.

Title: Greening London's black cabs: a study of driver's preferences for fuel cell taxis

Method: the study investigates the preferences of London taxi drivers for driving emissions-free hydrogen fuel cell taxis, both in the short term as part of a pilot project, and in the longer term if production line fuel cell taxis become available.

Results: driving hydrogen-fuelled vehicles does not seem to raise safety concerns amongst taxi drivers.

Risk criteria: other domains, comparable applications, harmonisation efforts.

It is usual to consider “risk perception” at the end of a “technical process” based on identification, evaluation, assessment and hierarchization of risks. However, risk perception do not depend on purely facts measures (gravity of the consequences) or prediction (probability). Values and contextual aspects like socio- economics ones, organizational ones, etc. determine the stakeholders perception. These statements show us that “risk assessment” process must be enriched at its early steps by both qualitative and quantitative studies of stakeholders’ visions and perceptions.

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Page last modified on June 14, 2007, at 11:41 AM