Whenever debate arises over the compulsory wearing of seat belts, the opposition can be heard citing evidences of risk compensation. What is risk compensation and what role does it play in the Seat Belt Legislation opposition?
In 1981, John Adams of the Department of Geography, University College London published a study that looked into data from several countries with seat belt laws. It hoped to establish a correlation between increased seat belt use and the reduction of injuries and fatalities resulting from vehicle collision and other road accidents. Data showed that in all associated deaths and injuries, the accidents were being displaced from car drivers to other road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. While fatalities may have decreased, the number of accidents – as well as the probability of injury and damage to property – remains unchanged.
Over the years, other studies conducted on road safety interventions such as anti-lock brakes, bicycle helmets, speed limits, etc. all provided evidence of a phenomenon, which investigators called “risk compensation”.
Risk Compensation and Human Nature
As a theory of social behavior, risk compensation describes the effect that happens when people perceive a change in the risks they face. Risk compensation claims that people make adjustments to their behavior according to the level of risk or danger and that, most of the time, when these dangers are perceived to be lesser, people tend to be bolder. The feeling that they are safer somehow makes them less cautious of their actions.
Several evidences exist to support this theory, which point to the universality of this behavior. Some researchers and commentators say that risk compensation is self-evident since people will truly act more cautiously when faced with great risks or dangers. All the same, research was conducted, mostly on road safety, which revealed that risk compensation can be observed in various conditions, from seat belt usage in automobiles to ski helmet use and use of skydiving safety gears. No matter the conditions, the situation remains: as people perceive themselves to be safer or more protected, concern and alertness tend to take the back seat.
Evidence of Risk Compensation
As mentioned, risk compensation has been observed in the use of anti-lock brakes. In three separate studies conducted in Canada (1993), Denmark (1997), and Germany (1994), there is a direct correlation between the presence of an anti-lock brake system and the drivers’ road behavior. Speed is generally faster for drivers with the ABS system in place compared to those who lack the technology in their cars. They also tend to follow leading cars closer and brake later, leading researchers to conclude that the ABS fails to show any measurable improvement in road safety.
The same trend was observed in drivers who were habitually belted and those habitually unbelted. In 1994, a US study found out that the driving style of drivers who are used to wearing seat belts run contrary to the expected heightened concern for safety. Habitually belted drivers were seen to be safety-conscious but were actually revealed to drive faster and less carefully when belted. Subsequent research showed that those who were not in the habit of wearing seat belts display risk compensation when asked to drive with seat belts on, driving faster than they would on average without the seat belt. This change in driving style continued to be observed after the drivers returned to driving without seat belts.
Independent studies conducted on skydiving safety gear, speed limits, ski helmets and bicycle helmets also show evidence of risk compensation. With this evidence in place, does this mean that seat belts and other safety systems designed to save lives are useless? The debate on seat belt use goes on, but as for other safety mechanisms, experts still promote their use. While seat belts and ABS systems have no effect on the rate of accident occurrences, they do have a positive effect in buffering the damages caused by accidents that result from miscalculations and errors of human judgment.
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