Cars are Safer and Traffic Deaths are Up!

accident-v2Risk Homeostasis is back in the news.

We have previously written about how we accept a certain level of risk then use risk protection measures not to be safer, but to increase our risk taking so our net level of acceptable risk stays the same. That is risk homeostasis.

It has been broadly reported recently that there has been a huge increase in traffic fatalities in the United States in the first half of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015: 10.4%.  Understandably, many are gravely concerned.

How does this relate to risk homeostasis? By any estimation, vehicles and highways have become safer.  Significant effort and resources have gone into design improvements that have increased safety.  Cars have airbags, ABS breaking systems, crumple zones and even some now have automatic emergency driving features to help avoid accidents.  Highways have many more barriers that give way on impact to reduce the chances of injuries or fatalities.  Yet traffic deaths are up dramatically.

This is risk homeostasis. The safer things become, the more we take risks.  Knowing that we are less likely to die while driving a safer modern vehicle, we take more risks such as texting while driving.  Sad but true.

The administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently announced a goal of eliminating traffic fatalities in the U.S. – all of them – within 30 years. A laudable goal but exceedingly unlikely.  All the safety features in the world will not change human nature.

Risk Homeostasis – the more things change the more they stay the same

bubble wrapped car, croppedLet’s talk for a few minutes about risk homeostasis – a fascinating concept put forth by Gerald J. S. Wilde. The premise is that every person has a certain level of risk with which they are comfortable then use risk protection measures not to be safer, but to increase their risk taking so their level of acceptable risk stays the same.

An example would be driving a car with lots of safety features such as seat belts, front and side airbags, ABS brakes and sideview (blind spot) assist that lets you know a vehicle is next to you but hard to see with your peripheral vision or mirrors.

Now compare driving this car with driving a car from the late 1950s or early 1960s with none of these safety features. Risk homeostasis tells us that the same person would drive the car loaded with safety features in a riskier manner. The idea is that all the protection provided by the safety features allows for more risks to be taken yet the original level of risk tolerance is still maintained.

If risk homeostasis is valid, the same person would drive the older car without the safety features more cautiously and as a result achieve the same level of risk as driving the safety feature loaded car in a riskier manner.

The same idea would suggest that a motorcyclist wearing a helmet and protective leathers with carbon fiber armor plates would drive in a riskier manner than if the same person was on the same motorcycle in shorts, a T-shirt and no helmet.

I leave it to you to decide whether you think risk homeostasis is valid. Some researchers think it is not.

Here is one last data point as you consider the validity of risk homeostasis:

When drivers see bicyclists wearing helmets, research shows that they take slightly less care with passing them than bicyclists without helmets. The results of a study published in Accident Analysis & Prevention in March 2007 tells us that drivers give a bicyclist not wearing a helmet on average 3.35 inches more room when passing them than if the bicyclist is wearing a helmet. Consider that this all happens spontaneously as the driver passes the bike without much time for the driver to contemplate their behavior in advance. They likely do it all rather intuitively.

So, do you think risk homeostasis is valid?

 

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