When Safety Proves Dangerous

Not everything we do with the aim of making ourselves safer has that effect. Sometimes, knowing there are measures in place to protect us from harm can lead us to take greater risks and cancel out the benefits. This is known as risk compensation. Understanding how it affects our behavior can help us make the best possible decisions in an uncertain world.

***

The world is full of risks. Every day we take endless chances, whether we’re crossing the road, standing next to someone with a cough on the train, investing in the stock market, or hopping on a flight.

From the moment we’re old enough to understand, people start teaching us crucial safety measures to remember: don’t touch that, wear this, stay away from that, don’t do this. And society is endlessly trying to mitigate the risks involved in daily life, from the ongoing efforts to improve car safety to signs reminding employees to wash their hands after using the toilet.

But the things we do to reduce risk don’t always make us safer. They can end up having the opposite effect. This is because we tend to change how we behave in response to our perceived safety level. When we feel safe, we take more risks. When we feel unsafe, we are more cautious.

Risk compensation means that efforts to protect ourselves can end up having a smaller effect than expected, no effect at all, or even a negative effect. Sometimes the danger is transferred to a different group of people, or a behavior modification creates new risks. Knowing how we respond to risk can help us avoid transferring danger to other more vulnerable individuals or groups.

Examples of Risk Compensation

There are many documented instances of risk compensation. One of the first comes from a 1975 paper by economist Sam Peltzman, entitled “The Effects of Automobile Safety Regulation.” Peltzman looked at the effects of new vehicle safety laws introduced several years earlier, finding that they led to no change in fatalities. While people in cars were less likely to die in accidents, pedestrians were at a higher risk. Why? Because drivers took more risks, knowing they were safer if they crashed.

Although Peltzman’s research has been both replicated and called into question over the years (there are many ways to interpret the same dataset), risk compensation is apparent in many other areas. As Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy write in Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, children who play sports involving protective gear (like helmets and knee pads) take more physical risks, and hikers who think they can be easily rescued are less cautious on the trails.

A study of taxi drivers in Munich, Germany, found that those driving vehicles with antilock brakes had more accidents than those without—unsurprising, considering they tended to accelerate faster and stop harder. Another study suggested that childproof lids on medicine bottles did not reduce poisoning rates. According to W. Kip Viscusi at Duke University, parents became more complacent with all medicines, including ones without the safer lids. Better ripcords on parachutes lead skydivers to pull them too late.

As defenses against natural disasters have improved, people have moved into riskier areas, and deaths from events like floods or hurricanes have not necessarily decreased. After helmets were introduced in American football, tackling fatalities actually increased for a few years, as players were more willing to strike heads (this changed with the adoption of new tackling standards.) Bailouts and protective mechanisms for financial institutions may have contributed to the scale of the 2008 financial crisis, as they led to banks taking greater and greater risks. There are numerous other examples.

We can easily see risk compensation play out in our lives and those of people around us. Someone takes up a healthy habit, like going to the gym, then compensates by drinking more. Having an emergency fund in place can encourage us to take greater financial risks. Wearing a face mask during a pandemic might mean you’re more willing to hang out in crowded places.

Risk Homeostasis

According to psychology professor Gerald Wilde, we all internally have a desired level of risk that varies depending on who we are and the context we are in. Our risk tolerance is like a thermostat—we take more risks if we feel too safe, and vice versa, in order to remain at our desired “temperature.” It all comes down to the costs and benefits we expect from taking on more or less risk.

The notion of risk homeostasis, although controversial, can help explain risk compensation. It means that enforcing measures to make people safer will inevitably lead to changes in behavior that maintain the amount of risk we’d like to experience, like driving faster while wearing a seatbelt. A feedback loop communicating our perceived risk helps us keep things as dangerous as we wish them to be. We calibrate our actions to how safe we’d like to be, making adjustments if it swings too far in one direction or the other.

What We Can Learn from Risk Compensation

We can learn many lessons from risk compensation and the research that has been done on the subject. First, safety measures are more effective the less visible they are. If people don’t know about a risk reduction, they won’t change their behavior to compensate for it. When we want to make something safer, it’s best to ensure changes go as unnoticed as possible.

Second, an effective method to reduce risk-taking behavior is to provide incentives for prudent behavior, giving people a reason to adjust their risk thermostat. Just because it seems like something has become safer doesn’t mean the risk hasn’t transferred elsewhere, putting a different group of people in danger as when seat belt laws lead to more pedestrian fatalities. So, for instance, lower insurance premiums for careful drivers might result in fewer fatalities than stricter road safety laws because it causes them to make positive changes to their behavior, instead of shifting the risk elsewhere.

Third, we are biased towards intervention. When we want to improve a situation, our first instinct tends to be to step in and change something, anything. Sometimes it is wiser to do less, or even nothing. Changing something does not always make people safer, sometimes it just changes the nature of the danger.

Fourth, when we make a safety change, we may need to implement corresponding rules to avoid risk compensation. Football helmets made the sport more dangerous at first, but new rules about tackling helped cancel out the behavior changes because the league was realistic about the need for more than just physical protection.

Finally, making people feel less safe can actually improve their behavior. Serious injuries in car crashes are rarer when the roads are icy, even if minor incidents are more common, because drivers take more care. If we want to improve safety, we can make risks more visible through better education.

Risk compensation certainly doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea to take steps to make ourselves safer, but it does illustrate how we need to be aware of unintended consequences that occur when we interact with complex systems. We can’t always expect to achieve the changes we desire first time around. Once we make a change, we should pay careful attention to the effects on the whole system to see what happens. Sometimes it will take the testing of a few alternate approaches to bring us closer to the desired effect.