I was following too close. The hybrid car in front hadn’t accelerated to the speed limit as I’d expected, the driver content to cruise along and leave a widening gap in front. Hybrid drivers often do that. I was following on a single lane road with few turnoffs, so I dropped back and mused about risk compensation.
I’ve always supposed hybrid drivers tend to drive slowly because the drivers are saving fuel. But I remembered that motoring journals reported that the early hybrids had low grip on some surfaces. If hybrid drivers also come to the same understanding about grip, then driving a bit slower and leaving a bigger gap in front would also be a prudent way to manage the risks.
I used to have a car with low grip levels. After a couple of hairy moments in the wet I learned to allow more space in front, especially on wet days. I also resolved to get much better tyres when they were eventually replaced. Then, when anti-skid ABS braking systems became more widespread, that became a must-have on my features list for future cars.
Everyone was confident that ABS would make a big difference to the risk of nose-to-tail car collisions. How wrong we were!
I was initially astounded when the statistics were reported years ago: no difference in nose-to-tail crash rates. Why? “Risk compensation” the researchers said. It turns out that drivers of cars fitted with ABS were more confident of their car’s stopping ability so they followed more closely such that the risks of nose-to-tail crashes ended up the same. (Fosser et al., 1997). The outcome is risk homeostatis.
Would I have allowed myself to drift so close in my old car? I expect not: alert to the limitations of my tyres and brakes I would have slowed earlier to maintain a more comfortable gap.
What if I now had two cars: my old one with no ABS and dodgy tyres and the much safer one that I drive today equipped with ABS, anti skid, air bags, and 5 star safety rating. If I got into that old car today I’d hang back more. That’s prudent. If I then got into my newer one I would probably resume following a bit closer. That’s risk compensation.
However “risk compensation” is a term that’s often used in a more generic sense, to describe situations where human behaviour thwarts the intentions of policy designers. We intend to make the system safer by introducing new safety controls, but people’s actions become more risky, restoring the level of risk.
Other examples of risk compensation are New Zealand’s compulsory bicycle helmet laws, and the compulsory wearing, helmets on American grid-iron players. In both cases behavioural changes, perhaps related to feeling safer, restored the levels of head injuries to what they had previously been (Clarke CF, 2007, Mueller FO, 1998).
It’s interesting to follow suggestions in some quarters about moving grid-iron to no helmets and rugby union style tackling, while rugby union also grapples with the effects of concussion on our players. In both cases the style of the game will change. Perhaps they have to. It seems that there are no easy answers.
So are risk compensation and prudence two sides of the same coin? Perhaps. However the key lesson is that, when designing risk controls, we need to be aware of the potential for human behaviour to restore the level of risk.
Fosser S, Saetermo IF, Sagberg F. An investigation of behavioral adaptation to airbags and antilock brakes among taxi drivers. Accident analysis and prevention, vol. 29.
Clarke CF, The Case against bicycle helmets and legislation, VeloCity Munich, 2007. http://www.ta.org.br/site/Banco/7manuais/colin_clarke_cycle_helmet.pdfc.
Mueller, F.O., 1998. Fatalities from head and cervical spine injuries occurring in tackle football: 50 years’ experience. Occupational Health and Industrial Medicine, 4(38), p.197.