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The Balance of Risk

Article #168 • Written by Cynthia Wood

Let’s suppose your child wants to take a martial arts class. Being a conscientious parent, you check out the local dojos and find two good places. Both are suitable and well equipped. Both practice fighting with contact – but there’s one major difference. One dojo insists on a full range of protective padding – hands, feet, chest protectors, shin guards – the whole works. The other takes a much lighter approach - hands and feet, and sometimes not even those.

To the conscientious parent, the first place is going to look much safer, right? But when you look at the injury rates of the two dojos, you notice something odd: They’re about the same. The kids covered in foam padding are getting just as many bruises, scrapes, and sprains as the kids wearing almost none. What could be going on here?

What’s happening is a process known as risk compensation. It’s a tendency in humans to increase risky behavior proportionately as safeguards are introduced, and it’s very common. So common, in fact, as to render predictions of how well any given piece of safety equipment will work almost useless.

In the instance of the mini-ninjas, those with pads are likely hitting and kicking harder and more wildly than those without, and the adults supervising them are likely to be allowing it. Why would we do such a strange thing? Dr. Gerald Wilde of Queens University in Ontario proposes a hypothesis he calls risk homeostasis. In a nutshell it proposes that human beings have a target level of risk with which they are most comfortable. When a given activity exceeds their comfort level, people will modify their behavior to reduce their risk until they are comfortable with their level of danger. So far, that's not exactly a controversial observation. But risk homeostasis proposes another half to that continuum – according to Dr. Wilde, if a given person’s level of risk drops too far below their comfort level, they will again modify their behavior. This time though, they will increase their level of risk until they are once again in their target zone.

It seems an odd proposition, but Dr. Wilde and his colleagues have assembled an impressive array of data to support it. For instance, a study of Munich taxicab drivers conducted while the taxicab fleet was being changed over to ABS braking systems. The drivers were tracked by observers unaware of which kind of brakes each cab had. Against the expectations of safety experts who recommend ABS brakes as a safety advance, the drivers with ABS brakes actually had more accidents per vehicle mile than those without. The drivers braked more sharply, made tighter turns, drove at higher speeds, and made a number of other adjustments to their driving, all of which more than compensated for their supposedly safer cabs.

Fortunately for us, risk homeostasis does not seem to apply in all cases. Safety innovations that are invisible tend not to provoke changes in behavior – for example changing windshields to safety glass does not alter most peoples’ driving behavior. The difference in the windshield is effectively invisible to the driver, and so doesn’t affect the driving. The taxicab drivers, by contrast, were intimately familiar with their cabs, and the difference in braking was apparent to them. Risk compensation can also be affected by motivation. A taxicab driver has every reason to try to get from A to B faster, but someone out for a Sunday drive to see the scenery would be less likely to go quickly in response to better braking.

Unfortunately for those whose job it is to make us all safer, risk homeostasis and risk compensation are not easy to study. It is difficult to predict how people will alter their behavior in response to a given piece of safety equipment, and thereby equally difficult to figure out what to be looking at in a study. Seatbelts, for instance, have an modestly positive effect on driver and passenger safety (though somewhat less than models predicted). It’s not until you look at pedestrian safety that you really begin to see where risk compensation may be having its way.

An additional complication for the already beleaguered safety engineers is that risk homeostasis is dependent not upon actual danger, but rather the perception of risk. Much of the gender and age differences in risk-taking behavior appear to stem less from differing desires for risk, and more from the individual's different evaluation of risk. Young people, and particularly young men, tend to evaluate their level of risk as much lower than older people would, even in identical situations. This implies that promoting safer behavior depends more upon altering the perceptions of the target population, rather than improving the safety of the environment-- a much trickier proposition.

What it all boils down to is that the law of unintended consequences is extraordinarily applicable when talking about safety innovations. Sometimes things intended to make us safer may not make any improvment at all to our overall safety, and in rare instances they may actually make us less safe. The human tendency to take risks may trump all the efforts of the safety engineers. In the end, no one can save us from ourselves.

Article written by Cynthia Wood, published on 20 April 2006. Cynthia is a contributing editor for DamnInteresting.com.

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows. Edited by Alan Bellows.
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53 Comments
gorgeousplanet
Posted 20 April 2006 at 10:24 pm

I have always thought about this idea. Once again you bring me something so damn interesting, I have to read it aloud to my boyfriend! Thanks!


brandan
Posted 20 April 2006 at 10:58 pm

what's the matter, is he crippled or something?


gagan97
Posted 21 April 2006 at 12:27 am

i had similar feeling gud to find its scintific now...


kwiksand
Posted 21 April 2006 at 12:31 am

Very interesting article, you can see it all over the place too


remote_pigeon
Posted 21 April 2006 at 12:46 am

it's all true, i behave much more dangerously when i have my knee pads on


Berkana
Posted 21 April 2006 at 01:57 am

I foresee an instance where this may lead to disaster: just imagine the explosion of STD infections that will accompany the AIDS vacine. Heck, the widespread availability of condoms has already lead to more widespread promiscuity and sexually risky behavior in the populations they were meant to protect.


cutterjohn
Posted 21 April 2006 at 02:10 am

That really amazing.. I've never thought about anything like that.

It is very true though, and i have a prime example.. Because of parachutes, a safety device, people are much more prone to hurl themselves, voluntarily mind you, out of perfectly good aircraft. ;)


lp
Posted 21 April 2006 at 06:04 am

Berkana said: "I foresee an instance where this may lead to disaster: just imagine the explosion of STD infections that will accompany the AIDS vacine. Heck, the widespread availability of condoms has already lead to more widespread promiscuity and sexually risky behavior in the populations they were meant to protect."

I totally agree. Once there's an absolute cure for AIDS and other STDs, there's gonna be f'n in the streets because nobody's going to be afraid anymore.


Jinja-Ninja
Posted 21 April 2006 at 06:09 am

Damn that's interesting. And unfortunately very true. I went snowboarding for a week recently. After day two of learning (can ski, but never boarded before) I bought myself a helmet because I thought that was the sensible thing to do. By day four I was comfortable on the slopes and with a helmet on I was in my little "safe-bubble".

Broke my frikkin leg though didn't I?


goldenbb
Posted 21 April 2006 at 06:28 am

While I don't doubt that this phenomenon occurs, the anectdote about the cab drivers in Munich is pure baloney. For drivers used to a traditional braking system, ABS brakes have a learning curve because drivers who pump the brakes in a skid do that in an ABS equipped car and suddenly have very decreased braking efficiency, resulting in more crashes. So it's not necessarily true that the drivers felt safer and thus drove more aggressively (could a cab driver anywhere possibly drive more aggressively than they already do?), but rather their years of muscle memory was suddenly working against them in the ABS equipped cars.

By this logic, auto manufacturers should all install large spikes in their steering wheels instead of airbags.


Scott Bowers
Posted 21 April 2006 at 07:15 am

You can see examples of this every winter in my area (Michigan). Every time we have a bad snow storm, you can see countless H2's and Expeditions burried in the snow or rolled over because the drivers think that four wheel drive gives them the ability to drive 80mph on ice covered highways. Four wheel drive may help you get moving, but it does little to help you stop. No matter how much you spend on your vehicle, you can't beat physics.

GoldenBB, manufacturers tried installing spikes in the steering wheels of their cars in the 50's, they were phased out when the government started requiring collapsible steering columns.


another viewpoint
Posted 21 April 2006 at 07:27 am

"The only reason cars have seatbelts is so the ambulance driver doesn't have to look for the body" (Bill Cosby).

Goldenbb beat me to the punch regarding the reference to ABS brakes. The problem with ABS brakes was strictly education. People used to pumping conventional brakes didn't know they weren't supposed to that with ABS. As such, I don't believe risk perception had anything to do with the number of accidents. To say that people drive erratically because they have air bags to protect them would have been a better case to study.

Once again, Damn Interesting!


rshawgo
Posted 21 April 2006 at 07:56 am

lp said: "I totally agree. Once there's an absolute cure for AIDS and other STDs, there's gonna be f'n in the streets because nobody's going to be afraid anymore."

Just wondering. AIDS has only been strongly protraied in the news since the late 20th century. Prior to that I can assume from your statement that there was wild f'n in the streets prior to the discovery of aids throughout history?

I will admit, I do change my inline skating patterns with and without certain types of pads.


bradh
Posted 21 April 2006 at 08:00 am

Another cause for this could be related to the pads causing the hits to land more solidly.


Floj
Posted 21 April 2006 at 08:10 am

A pie a day deeps the risk away. Sometimes you will need to double scoop the whip cream when your wearing a helmet. I call it PRRA (Pie Risk Reduction, Awesome!).

Another great article, thanks Cynthia for providing some damn interesting stuff. You also deserve an extra large slice o'pie.


Tex
Posted 21 April 2006 at 08:12 am

More Pads = More Risk = More Injury = More hospital Time = More Cafeteria... Pie

That mean, More pain, more pie! OOOHHHH YYYYEEAAAHHHH!


Carcer
Posted 21 April 2006 at 08:32 am

Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. Suffering leads to...PIE!


Everyone
Posted 21 April 2006 at 08:37 am

Darkside=Pie?! You should realize that everyone loves pie. And that's not third person. Mmmhmmm


sparklemomma
Posted 21 April 2006 at 08:45 am

It always seems to come back to pie or Canada here... Ahaha.


Tex
Posted 21 April 2006 at 08:55 am

Thats right, I discovered a secret in chemistry today... its not valence shell electron pair repulsion theory (VSEPR); Oh no my friends, its Voraciously Succulent Exceptional Pie Rapture.... You don’t have to question its validity either… true story


Cynthia Wood
Posted 21 April 2006 at 09:07 am

Re: the Munich cab drivers. More accidents per vehicle mile may be the result of unfamiliarity, but the researchers were measuring all the other variables mentioned, not just the accidents. The cab drivers with ABS were measurably driving faster, following closer, braking and turning harder than those without ABS. It wasn't an anecdote - it was a study.

Big spikes in the steering wheel wouldn't exactly go over well - but just imagine how carefully you'd drive if you had one!


Cynthia Wood
Posted 21 April 2006 at 09:07 am

Mmmm. Pie!


stacijon
Posted 21 April 2006 at 09:31 am

In an Economics class years ago, our prof led a class about Risk Compensation (don't ask how many years ago!). The statistics we analyzed were accident rates at high vs low speeds. When the speed limit was lowered in the late 80's for safety reasons, the accident rate increased - contrary to intent. When driving 85 miles per hour - people do so VERY CAREFULLY vs typical careless driving at 35 mph.

And indeed, my professor, Dr Butler, hypothesized that the safest driving results by placing not an airbag but a bayonnet in the center of the steering wheel.


dodja
Posted 21 April 2006 at 10:46 am

This reminds me of some friends who debated for years whether to wear helmets while skiing. This was right after helmets had gotten a lot of exposure when Sonny Bono hit a tree and died while skiing. My friends found themselves skiing more aggressively and skiing longer hours (when they would normally take a break from exhaustion). I would guess that most people do not realize they are taking on more risks, though. If you realize it, you can try to compensate back to the safe side.

In the end, they decided they ski a lot and that helmets are like defensive driving... they are not so much for yourself, but to protect you from that out-of-control asshole screaming down the mountain.


jchristman
Posted 21 April 2006 at 12:25 pm

goldenbb said: "While I don't doubt that this phenomenon occurs, the anectdote about the cab drivers in Munich is pure baloney. For drivers used to a traditional braking system, ABS brakes have a learning curve because drivers who pump the brakes in a skid do that in an ABS equipped car and suddenly have very decreased braking efficiency, resulting in more crashes. So it's not necessarily true that the drivers felt safer and thus drove more aggressively (could a cab driver anywhere possibly drive more aggressively than they already do?), but rather their years of muscle memory was suddenly working against them in the ABS equipped cars.

By this logic, auto manufacturers should all install large spikes in their steering wheels instead of airbags."

I used to be a professional driving instructor teaching high performance techniques. Who says that the average person even tries to pump their brakes when they lock up? Most people haven't a clue what is going on and keep their foot firmly planted on the brake at the point of lockup. ABS is incredible, still not 100% as effective as a professional who knows how to threshold brake properly though. And I do agree on the point made that there was a huge lack of education on how to use ABS which in turn did produce many accidents. But I think the accidents were caused by the pulsating vibrations coming from the pedal when the ABS kicks in, people would freak out and take their foot off the brake.


rhapsodisiac
Posted 21 April 2006 at 07:03 pm

rshawgo said: "Just wondering. AIDS has only been strongly protraied in the news since the late 20th century. Prior to that I can assume from your statement that there was wild f'n in the streets prior to the discovery of aids throughout history?"

Prior to that there was fire and brimstone. Etcetera.


Oax
Posted 21 April 2006 at 07:05 pm

The only pies they have in Canada are the moose pies you find in the woods


Crispy
Posted 21 April 2006 at 07:24 pm

stacijon said: "And indeed, my professor, Dr Butler, hypothesized that the safest driving results by placing not an airbag but a bayonnet in the center of the steering wheel."

Safer driving, sure, but the fatality rate in accidents would go WAY up. *grin*

Perhaps the best compromise would be a projected hologram of an evil-looking spiky bayonet dripping blood; even though you knew it wasn't real, it would remind you of the danger. And of course it wouldn't skewer you.

The flaw in that plan is that evil-looking spiky bayonets dripping blood don't sell cars. Sex, now that sells cars. Evil-looking spiky bayonets dripping blood? Not so much.


Jake Brake
Posted 21 April 2006 at 08:23 pm

Something that isn't addressed in this study is an examination of how risk levels are influenced by the abilities of the individuals involved.

Young people, and particularly young men, tend to evaluate their level of risk as much lower than older people would, even in identical situations.

This analysis seems to ignore the fact that younger people, who on average possess faster reflexes and physical skills than older people, should presumably be at less risk in an otherwise identically risky situation. This may be mitigated by a corresponding lack of experience-gained judgment skills, but it's a valid point.

Another related issue is mastery of skills through repetition. As an example, when I first started snowboarding, I suffered many falls and injuries in situations that now pose little challenge or risk to me, as I have gained sufficient mastery of the sport to take on more challenging terrain. This is despite an age-related decline in physical skill and reaction time. I'd be interested to know what the criteria are in defining exactly what is considered a 'risky' situation, and what factors modify an individual's actual risk in that situation aside from their perception of the risk.

Studies have also shown that in a multiple person household, foregoing a piece of pie at any time carries an inherent risk of missing out on the pie altogether.


bobo
Posted 21 April 2006 at 08:23 pm

You could always replace the evil-looking spiky bayonets dripping blood with large black dildos. Impalement with the bayonet starts to look appealing however.


Cynthia Wood
Posted 21 April 2006 at 10:24 pm

I'm not sure about real-life bayonets. I do know that my driving became much more cautious after I met a woman who had had her thumb torn off by a deploying air-bag. Suddenly the minor collision looked a hell of a lot more dangerous.

Jake - that sentence is essentially a brief mention of a couple of paragraph long section of paper discussing exactly that. People's level of risk is dependant on their skills, as well as the situation. But their perception of risk is also dependant on their perception of their skills (not their actual skills), as well as the situation. It's part of what makes the whole thing so difficult to study.


nutritionalalchemist
Posted 22 April 2006 at 07:32 am

Floj said: "A pie a day deeps the risk away. Sometimes you will need to double scoop the whip cream when your wearing a helmet. I call it PRRA (Pie Risk Reduction, Awesome!).

Another great article, thanks Cynthia for providing some damn interesting stuff. You also deserve an extra large slice o'pie."

Let me be the first to say I want a BIG piece of Floj pie!!! : )

I love you, floj! I think you are the only sane one here (just teasing, everyone!)


Birdie
Posted 22 April 2006 at 07:40 am

I have a brand-new grandaughter, and my son and daughter-in-law are currently discussing (endlessly!) how they want to raise her. One issue is about little kids on tricycles with helmets and padding...my argument is that it's overkill, and kids need to have bumps and scrapes. They agree so far, but she's only 6 weeks old...lol

The greater issue is about caution in the first place: if a kid could be protected from ALL pain, would it be a good thing? And, is it fair to them? If you have no baseline for what's possible, would caution kick-in at all?


SparkyTWP
Posted 22 April 2006 at 09:00 am

Birdie said: "The greater issue is about caution in the first place: if a kid could be protected from ALL pain, would it be a good thing? And, is it fair to them? If you have no baseline for what's possible, would caution kick-in at all?"

It's funny you ask this. There are a very few children who are born without the ability to feel pain. This was the subject of a documentary called A Life Without Pain. Basically, these kids have to be constantly watched to make sure they aren't running into things or poking their eyes out with their hands, or chewing on their tongue like bubble gum when the teeth come in. It's a torturing experience for the parents. So to answer your question, no, you would not want your kids sheltered from pain, it's the ultimate teacher.


SparkyTWP
Posted 22 April 2006 at 11:31 am

Here's the link that I didn't properly link to before.


scarr
Posted 24 April 2006 at 10:13 am

ok, i believe the study was screwed. how often can take a car without abs, replace it with a car with abs (and we are talking mecedes according to the picture) and not get better handling acceleration ect.?

my best bet is that they also had more performing cars and wanted to push them.
drive a 1956 buick, then drive a 2005 buick. extreme difference but they probably had the same experience on a smaller scale. now that you have the performance might as well use it right?

so i don't think it was just the abs, unless they spent all kinds of money refitting thr drivers existing cars with abs. but that would be silly.


sierra_club_sux
Posted 24 April 2006 at 10:21 am

LOL! If you learned something from this article it's time to start making your own observations and read just a bit less. This was common sense. I suppose common sense isn't so common anymore. There comes a point where people become so scientific as to overlook the obvious. Unreal...


jojomojo4
Posted 25 April 2006 at 05:21 pm

Cynthia, You did it again! You got my interest.


rocksinthecreek
Posted 26 April 2006 at 07:28 am

All of this begs the question of why this behavoir would evolve? What evolutionary advantage would there to be to maintaining a set level of perceived risk?

My only theory would be that persons willing to take higher risks would be able to access more food, but if they took too high of risks, their likelyhood of dying getting the food would cancel out the advantage.

The world would be a much safer place if all young men were drugged complacent for two decades of their lives. The probability of violent crime is directly related to the proportion of young men in the population. This is likely related to risk balancing.

Ex hang glider pilot, motorcycle racer, etc...


sierra_club_sux
Posted 26 April 2006 at 08:40 am

rocksinthecreek said: "The world would be a much safer place if all young men were drugged complacent for two decades of their lives. The probability of violent crime is directly related to the proportion of young men in the population. This is likely related to risk balancing."

That's quite an extreme control measure. Would it be effective? Or would the demographic age of criminals increase?


Sapient
Posted 26 April 2006 at 03:49 pm

As a safety engineer all I can say is Bravo! Cynthia. This is something my profession struggles with everyday. Regardless of what it is your trying to make safer, the typical workers responce is to ignore the risk until THEY feel unsafe, even if their understanding of the risk is low (or non existant). Studies have shown complacency is just as prevelent in underestimating risk, so I am not sure the bayonet/dildo on the steering wheel would work once the novelty wore off.
As safety professionals we try and safeguard against hazards in an attempt to make it as idiot proof as possible, trouble is they are always making better idiots.


david_42
Posted 30 May 2006 at 04:40 pm

Speaking to the police in my area, they have noticed that single vehicle accidents are getting more severe. One officer blames the traction management programs common in newer cars. Kids push the cars harder, so accidents that 20 years ago happened at 70 mph, are happening at 100 or more.


smokefoot
Posted 25 July 2006 at 09:08 pm

Highway designers in europe are starting to use this in reverse to improve safety. If you take an intersection and elminate the curb and any other barrier between the pedestrian and the driver, the driver will feel more nervous and be more careful. The designer demonstrated the concept by walking across the intersection backwards(!) - he said that a properly designed intersection is safe enough to do that no matter how heavy the car traffic.


smokefoot
Posted 25 July 2006 at 09:09 pm

Of course, the pedestrian walking across the intersection backwards is another example of risk compensation on the pedestrian's part instead of the driver's part!!


mentarman
Posted 28 September 2007 at 08:35 pm

There's a lot of talk about this among hockey fans (where there is generally a lot of talk about violence/injury in general).
The theory: as pads have gotten better and stronger, people hit others harder with harder pads that protect them becoming something hard to hit with. As face shields have been phased in, players aren't as careful with their sticks and high-sticking has (allegedly) increased.
Another counterintuitive thing in hockey is that some people believe as refs have cracked down on fights and retaliation, injuries have gone up. The theory here is that under the old system, when a goon hurt a star, he would have to pay via a fight or receiving a hit later. Players tended to see way more than the refs, knew who was playing dirty, and policed themselves. But now that those things are penalized, the original goon is more likely to get away with things that the ref doesn't see, and not pay for it because those who might try to make him pay for it fear the penalty box. Until the built-up frustration with the goon comes out all at once.


lizdini
Posted 29 March 2008 at 09:45 pm

Berkana said: "I foresee an instance where this may lead to disaster: just imagine the explosion of STD infections that will accompany the AIDS vacine. Heck, the widespread availability of condoms has already lead to more widespread promiscuity and sexually risky behavior in the populations they were meant to protect."

eh?


Rachelita
Posted 12 June 2008 at 10:23 am

cutterjohn said: "That really amazing.. I've never thought about anything like that.

It is very true though, and i have a prime example.. Because of parachutes, a safety device, people are much more prone to hurl themselves, voluntarily mind you, out of perfectly good aircraft. ;)"

I'm doing this in 2 weeks actually! I guess I'm looking for something to hit my target risk... xD


a1c
Posted 09 August 2008 at 03:32 pm

Make it idiot proof, invent a better idiot.

There's an argument against motorcycle helmet laws despite the ability of a helmet to protect in an accident. Motorcycle airbags, body armor as well.


sweeper
Posted 28 November 2008 at 09:16 am

a1c: "There's an argument against motorcycle helmet laws despite the ability of a helmet to protect in an accident". I'd be interested in finding out if riders without helmets are less likely to have accidents due to their less-risky behaviour and also the behaviour of other road users. e.g are other road users more likely to give an unprotected rider the proper room.

And, in the martial arts examples, would the injuries at the dojo with less padding be due to the students getting hit harder, or due to them hitting harder themselves?


Vrolock
Posted 16 December 2008 at 09:24 pm

Everyone said: "Darkside=Pie?! You should realize that everyone loves pie. And that's not third person. Mmmhmmm"

Join the dark side, we have PIE!!!


robinwilson2
Posted 04 August 2009 at 11:20 am

As a High School debater, I recall arguing a case about air-bags in cars, and/or automatic seat belts. In the evidence we used AGAINST the case, we cited a guy named Sam Peltzman, and the "Peltzman Effect". He now has a wiki page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peltzman_effect that documents his theory and research.

It is essentially the same argument made in this article - that people attempt to 'normalize' their behavior to a level of risk that is comfortable. As you increase safety in one area, they modify their behaviors that will increase their risk to compensate. And even though they may be safer in the intended area, their increase in risky behavior will have deleterious effects on the outcomes of other behaviors. The specific examples Peltzman cited were related to car safety improvements, and how they had a tendency to increase accidents with pedestrians.


Rodger Wrighthead
Posted 17 August 2009 at 03:08 am

Can anyone say Godmode? All your pie belongs to us?
Jokes aside, this is DI.

(p.s. Cynthia, are you a feminist?).


thekenemy
Posted 05 April 2011 at 05:08 am

I have to say something about ABS here. The latest systems can apparently work very subtle and sometimes barely perceptable, under relatively light braking and for very short durations. And if you're a fast driver you will probably adapt to it. That's my impression at least, because recently I had to drive for a while with my ABS effectively disabled and I was suprised how easily I locked up the wheels, even though had been perfectly used to driving cars without ABS in the past.
And no, I'm not one of those idiots who keep driving 100 till 20m before the turn, then slam the brakes, then turn and then indicate, rather I'm the kind of idiot who starts coasting when he sees the turn a mile away.


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