The Danger of Safety Equipment

My car is a safety braggart. When I glance at the dashboard, there’s a cluster of glowing orange lights, reminding me of all the smart technology designed to save me from my stupid mistakes. Airbags, check. Anti-lock brakes, check. Traction control, check. Collision Alert system, check.

It’s a comforting sight. It might also be a dangerous one. In fact, if you follow the science, all of these safety reminders could turn me into a more dangerous driver. This is known as the risk compensation effect, and it refers to the fact that people tend to take increased risks when using protective equipment. It’s been found among bicycle riders (people go faster when wearing helmets), taxi drivers and children running an obstacle course (safety gear leads kids to run more “recklessly.”) It’s why football players probably hit harder when playing with helmets and the fatality rate for skydivers has remained constant, despite significant improvements in safety equipment. (When given better parachute technology, people tend to open their parachutes closer to the ground, leading to a sharp increase in landing deaths.) It’s why improved treatments for HIV can lead to riskier sexual behaviors, why childproof aspirin caps don’t reduce poisoning rates (parents are more likely to leave the caps off bottles) and why countries with mandatory seat belt laws shift the risk from drivers to pedestrians and cyclists. As John Adams, professor of geography at the University of College London notes, “Protecting car occupants from the consequences of bad driving encourages bad driving.”

However, despite this surfeit of field data, the precise psychological mechanisms of risk compensation remain unclear. One of the lingering mysteries involves the narrowness of the effect. For instance, when people drive a car loaded with safety equipment, it’s clear that they often drive faster. But are they also more likely to not follow parking regulations? Similarly, a football player wearing an advanced helmet is probably more likely to deliver a dangerous hit with their head. But are they also more willing to commit a penalty? Safety equipment makes us take risks, but what kind of risks?

To explore this mystery, the psychologists Tim Gamble and Ian Walker at the University of Bath came up with a very clever experimental design. They recruited 80 subjects to play a computer game in which they had to inflate an animated balloon until it burst. The bigger the balloon, the bigger the payout, but every additional pump came with a risk: the balloon could pop, and then the player would get nothing.

Here’s the twist: Before the subjects played the game, they were given one of two pieces of headgear to wear. Some were given a baseball hat, while others were given a bicycle helmet. They were told that the gear was necessary part of the study, since the scientists had to track their eye movements. You can see the equipment below:

In reality, the headgear was a test of risk compensation. Gamble and Walker wanted to know how wearing a bike helmet, as opposed to a baseball hat, influenced risk-taking behavior on a totally unrelated task. (Obviously, a bike helmet won’t protect you from an exploding balloon on a computer screen.) Sure enough, those subjects randomly assigned to wear the helmet inflated the balloon to a much greater extent, receiving risk-taking scores that were roughly 30 percent higher. They also were more likely to admit to various forms of “sensation-seeking,” such as saying they “wish they could be a mountain climber,” or that they “enjoy the company of real ‘swingers.’” In short, the mere act of wearing a helmet that provided no actual protection still led people to act as if they were protected from all sorts of risks.

This lab research has practical implications. If using safety gear induces a general increase in risky behavior - and not just behavior directly linked to the equipment - then it might also lead to unanticipated dangers for which we are ill prepared. “This is not to suggest that the safety equipment will necessarily have its specific utility nullified,” write Gamble and Walker, “but rather that there could be changes in behavior wider than previously envisaged.” If anti-lock brakes lead us to drive faster in the rain, that’s too bad, but at least it’s a danger the technology is designed to mitigate. However, if the presence of the safety equipment also makes us more likely to text on the phone, then it might be responsible for a net reduction in overall safety, at least in some cases. Anti-lock brakes are no match for a distracted driver.

This doesn’t mean we're better off without air bags or behind the wheel of a Ford Pinto. But perhaps we should think of ways to lessen the salience of our safety gear. (At the very least, we should get rid of all those indicators on the dashboard.) Given the risk compensation effect, the safest car just might be the one that never tells you how safe it really is.

Gamble, Tim and Walker, Ian. “Wearing a Bicycle Helmet Can Increase Risk Taking and Sensation Seeking in Adults,” Psychological Science, 2016.