Can safety prove dangerous?

“What do you do if you see a spaceman?” my 8-year-old asked me recently. “ I don’t know,“ I replied. “Park your car, man!” he joked.

Since I’ve had kids, I’ve been surprised by the extent to which I’ve tried to banish risk from their lives. I’ve taught them to carry scissors with the closed blades in their closed fists in case they fell on them. I’ve encouraged them to always wash away germs from their hands before meals. And before I have retired to bed, I have always returned to their bedrooms to make sure their duvets weren’t smothering their faces. And the next morning, I’ve then chosen to drive them to the museum rather than take a train, which statistically would have been much safer. Doh!

Truth be told, little is known about how we perceive risk and decide on the risks worth taking. However, theories abound. One interesting theory that might shed some light on when safety might prove dangerous is Risk Compensation/Homeostasis Theory. This theory suggests that we tend to take more risks when we feel a greater sense of safety or security.

In 1967, Sweden switched from traffic driving on the left-hand side of the road to the right-hand side. At first, it appears Swedish drivers’ perception of the risk of crashing during the changeover soared. Meanwhile, the number of crashes fell. The theory is that the accident rate dropped – temporarily – because drivers compensated and became extremely cautious. However, when drivers learned of this, they perhaps felt less of a need to be so cautious, and the accident rate bounced back to where it had been!

Homeostasis: “The tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements.”

So, as drivers intent on improving our knowledge and safety margins, how might we leverage this theory of risk compensation to reduce our chances of crashing? Well, for starters, we would do well to remember that driver aids that vehicle manufacturers innovate – such as semi-autonomous features like Tesla’s current ‘Autopilot’ – might, without us consciously realising it, influence us to give our driving less care and attention. If it is true that due to ‘risk homeostasis’ we might compensate for our perception of reduced risk by taking additional risks in order to maintain homeostasis, there is mileage in us reminding ourselves of this. If our tolerance of risk is like a thermostat, we need to remember that we might take more risks on driving a feature-packed car in order to remain at our preferred ‘temperature’ – unless we remain mindful of our tendency to compensate.

Is this why some vehicle tech’ leaves me cold?

Best wishes

Founder, How to Drive

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