Risk Compensation

Risk compensation is an effect whereby individual people may tend to adjust their behaviour in response to perceived changes in risk. It is seen as self-evident that individuals will tend to behave in a more cautious manner if their perception of risk or danger increases. In other words individuals will behave less cautiously in situations where they feel "safer" or more protected.

I was reminded of this definition many years ago when I met up with a senior executive from a major oil company for a day of advanced driver training. He was a very high mileage driver whose car (a new Audi A4) was in for service every two to three months. The day we met was the day after the car had been in for a major service.

As is my wont, I asked the driver how often and what he would check on his vehicle in between services. His answer was 'Nothing, to be frank with you. The car is in and out of service so often that I don't even know how to open the bonnet.'

'Humour me', I said 'let's lift the bonnet and see what lurks below!'

As we lifted said bonnet, it was clear that all was not right. Oil coated the underside of the soundproofing material and was swilling around in a plastic catch tray under the engine. Both the oil filler cap and the dipstick had been left off and the engine compartment was covered in new, freshly serviced but totally useless oil. Much to the driver's chagrin, our first port of call was to a competitor's service station where he had to purchase a substantial quantity of SAE something or other to render the poor Audi driveable again.

In a sense, this was risk compensation at work - the driver (who actually did know better) was prepared to let his car (and therefore ultimately his safety) be left in the hands of 'professionals' who were actually clearly anything but. His behaviour had been modified (i.e. he failed to take responsibility) because he assumed his car would be returned to him in a safe and serviceable condition.

There is also plenty of evidence that suggests that risk compensation carries over to driving behaviour, associated with the use of safety features such as car seat belts. The evidence is particularly compelling for the case of ABS systems. It is likely to be least when an intervention is imperceptible and greatest when an intervention is intrusive or conspicuous.

There are at least three studies which show that drivers' response to antilock brakes is to drive faster, follow closer and brake later, accounting for the failure of ABS to result in any measurable improvement in road safety. The studies were performed in Canada, Denmark and Germany. Although, as we've discussed previously, this might in fact be down to drivers not understanding the function of ABS - that of allowing braking and steering simultaneously.

It has variously been noted that some road safety interventions fail to achieve the forecast savings in lives and injuries and some speculate that while the studies demonstrated that the probability of injury given a crash had reduced, the fact that the overall probability of injury was unchanged indicated that there must have been some change in the probability of crashing.

For example, some studies have shown that there was no correlation between the passing of seat belt legislation and the total reductions in injuries or fatalities. When all associated fatalities and injuries in road accidents were included, it appeared that some accidents were being displaced from car drivers to pedestrians and other road users.

The (almost) unconscious belief that a driver might have that his or her modern car, equipped with the latest active and passive safety aids, results in less 'risk' for the occupants can unwittingly lead drivers to drive faster, closer or generally with less care.

So, the message might be this: while modern safety aids have the potential to reduce both the numbers and the severity of some types of crashes, we sacrifice our own awareness and responsibility to other road users (at the altar of technology) at our peril.

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