standard Spreading risk: A look at risk compensation

There seems to be a paradox in how some risks are mitigated. For instance, there is a tendency to believe that implementing safety regulations will in effect reduce the risk of harm. While implementing safety regulations helps reduce the levels of risk people are exposed to they can also redistribute the risk, eliminating some risks, but increasing others by decreasing the level of perceived risk. This has been given several names by researchers including ‘risk homeostasis’, ‘risk compensation’ and ‘offset hypothesis’ and there are good reasons to think that it could help to better inform policies and regulations for making people’s lives safer, but it is also controversial amongst scientists and practitioners working in public safety.

airbag

Do air bags make driving riskier?

Most of the studies that support risk homeostasis theory are on automobile traffic safety, such as the use of air bags, traffic laws and braking systems, that are expected to reduce risks, not increase them. When air bags and anti-lock braking systems were introduced researchers found drivers actually behaved more aggressively, possibly perceiving the risk of harm much lower and compensating for this with riskier driving. This appears counterintuitive. Instead of people becoming safer by relying on new technologies that reduce risk of harm they inadvertently increase it by responding with more risky behaviour.

What this research may be saying is that despite the intentions of safety regulators who presume that people can simply be insulated from risk, their attempts at cushioning the world from risk can actually have the opposite effect. Risk researchers who support the homeostasis theory recommend a different approach to risk mitigation in the case of road traffic safety. Rather than punishing people for unsafe behaviours, drivers should be given incentives for avoiding collisions due to speeding, or engaging in risky behaviours such as drink driving, for example.

There is some evidence for supporting an incentive approach to reduce risky driving behaviour.  A study in 2012 funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the USA found that when drivers were given a $25 per month incentive they always drove within the speed limit, which reduced speeding significantly. This was combined with a negative incentive of reducing the cash prize when drivers exceeded the speed limit. Perhaps more studies can confirm whether or not positive reinforcement can encourage safer driving.

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Who wants 25 quid for driving the speed limit?

Risk homeostasis could have implications not only for traffic risk, but for other kinds of risks as well. It shows that encouraging people to feel safe, may not be the most effective strategy because it prevents them from assessing risk fully or even leads them to ignore risks altogether. Instead, finding ways to encourage people to act safely may be the more sensible option. As far as risk management is concerned, thinking about risk in terms of homeostasis theory could be useful for preparation, planning and policy.

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