Monday, December 04, 2006

Risk Compensation Revisited

When I was in debate we used to run a disadvantage called Risk Homeostatis which suggested that if you make society seem too safe, then people will act out in more dangerous ways and you end up without any net increase in safety.

It seemed a little kooky, but it was interesting and I've often wondered about the merits of the argument in my own unsophisticated way ever since. But today I saw an article by David Bjerklie in Time about the same concept, only this time called risk compensation.

[R]isk doesn't exist in a vacuum and that there are a host of factors that come into play, including the rewards of risk, whether they are financial, physical or emotional. It is this very human context in which risk exists that is key, says Adams, who titled one of his recent blogs: "What kills you matters — not numbers." Our reactions to risk very much depend on the degree to which it is voluntary (scuba diving), unavoidable (public transit) or imposed (air quality), the degree to which we feel we are in control (driving) or at the mercy of others (plane travel), and the degree to which the source of possible danger is benign (doctor's orders), indifferent (nature) or malign (murder and terrorism). We make dozens of risk calculations daily, but you can book odds that most of them are so automatic—or visceral—that we barely notice them. |Time|
So I typed Risk Compensation in Google Scholar, and there's quite a bit of research on this issue. Who knew?

For instance, this article abstract for Risk Compensation--the Case of Road Lighting indicates that road lighting causes some people to become worse drivers, while it also encourages timid safer drivers on the road at night as well.
[P]revious research showing that road lighting reduces road accidents and that average driving speeds do not increase when road lighting is installed. Our results show that drivers do compensate for road lighting in terms of increased speed and reduced concentration. ... This means that road lighting could have a somewhat larger accident-reducing effect, if compensation could be avoided. The fact that previous research has found no change in average speed when road lighting is introduced, seems to be explained by increased driving speeds by some drivers being counterbalanced by a larger proportion of more slowly driving groups of drivers (elderly people and women), i.e. different subgroups of road users compensate in different ways. |PubMed|

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