How Car Safety Features are Reducing Risk Intelligence on the Road

Driving is one of the riskiest activities that people in the United States can possibly do. Each year, thousands die as a result of traffic incidents, so risk intelligence behind the wheel is a crucial. Cars have been mass-produced in the United States for over a century, but they have gone through significant changes since the times of Henry T Ford. Many of the developments of both cars and highway law enforcement have centered on safety. Crumple zones, seat belt laws, air bags, anti-lock brakes, side-impact protection systems, traction control systems, and speed limits, are all designed to save lives and make driving a less risky activity. However, despite all these safety measures, road accidents and fatalities have remained constant over the last few decades

Currently, over 200 million people hold a driving license in the United States, and annual road  fatalities has remained at about 40,000 a year for the last 20 years, despite many of the improvements in car and road safety mentioned above. Of course, the number of cars on the road increases each year, but this still doesn’t account for why accidents remain at the level they do, and some people suggest the very safety improvements themselves are to blame. It seems, the safer cars become, the more risks drivers are willing to take, an effect that has become known as Smeed’s law, which points out that increases in safety equipment and changes in traffic law are being cancelled out by changes these systems cause in driving behavior.

Commercial drivers

For commercial drivers, fatal accident rates are actually increasing. Commercial vehicles, such as truck and van drivers, are far more likely to be involved in road collisions than other drivers are, because of the amount of miles they drive each year. Furthermore, schedules and long working hours lead van and truck drivers to take more risks, but also, these types of vehicle are fitted with all sorts of safety devices.

Commercial vehicle accidents cost the US economy millions of dollars each year because of the loss of working hours, repairs to vehicles, and claims on commercial vehicle insurance. As a result, haulage companies invest huge amounts of time and money looking at ways to reduce the number of accidents that their drivers are involved in, from analyzing crash reports, to actual onboard monitoring of driving habits, but the safety of the modern commercial vehicle could be the biggest culprit. While companies that provide truck and private van insurance often offer discounts for vehicles with such safety equipment, the practice could be having the opposite effect as intended, with the insurance companies inadvertently encouraging accidents with this incentive.

Peltzman effect

The first person to theorize the negative effect of safety regulations was Sam Peltzman, and his theory has become known as the Peltzman effect. He suggested that people adjust their behavior to counteract improvements in safety, so when the government introduced seatbelt laws or car manufacturers installed air bags in their vehicles, people’s risk intelligence changed because they recognized the chance of serious injury in an accident had diminished. The consequence of this is that people drive faster and more recklessly. Furthermore, safety equipment in cars may cause even more risk to pedestrians and cyclists, who don’t benefit from such technology, while motorists are driving faster and more recklessly.

Attempts to measure this Peltzman effect have been limited, mainly because of the huge number of variables involved with the compiling of traffic data. However, one study conducted in 2007 used the number of crashes in NASCAR to discover if changes to the car’s safety were making racing drivers more reckless. Using track data from 1972 to 1993, the researchers discovered that as cars became safer, the drivers became more reckless, and while the number of injuries in NASCAR had reduced due to safety changes to the cars and tracks, the number of accidents had increased.

A similar effect has been noticed in a UK study regarding the use of cycling helmets. Helmets are not compulsory in the UK, and research by a leading traffic psychologist found cyclists that wore helmets were more likely to be involved in an accident with a vehicle than those that didn’t wear them. The reasoning was that drivers give more room and drive more carefully around cyclists they perceive are unprotected compared to cyclists that are wearing helmets.

The Peltzman effect has led to a common witticism among traffic psychologists that suggests if you placed a dagger on everybody’s steering wheel and point it at the driver then road accidents would be reduced to virtually zero as everybody would drive exceptionally carefully or risk serious injury from even the slightest bump.

Jessie Hardcastle is a freelance writer from England who specialises in finance and investment for a number of UK journals and blogs. With a growing following she has recently be focussing mainly on the problems close to her London home as Europe continues to falter in the face of political indecision.

Risk Intelligence for the Layperson

If you intend to embark on a career as a gambler or a weather forecaster, or if you intend to speculate on the stock exchange or take a punt at your local horse races, improving your risk intelligence would stand you in good stead and improve your odds of winning. However, not everybody is interested in gambling or other ‘risky’ ventures, so why should you care about your risk intelligence?

In everyday situations, improved risk intelligence can be advantageous. Whether it be evaluating what insurance cover we might need, if we are a member of a jury, making business investment decisions, working in recruitment and employing someone with previous convictions and even whether or not to move in with a girlfriend/boyfriend, the ability to accurately assess the risks of each circumstance would leave us much more likely to get a positive final outcome. The layperson in particular exhibits three key flaws when evaluating risk:

1) Overconfidence – this is the most common flaw. It is when we are more confident in a particular outcome than we have reason or evidence to back it up with. Overconfidence is exceedingly common and often comes from those that we trust most to help us make decisions; experts. Relying on ‘experts’ is not always as simple as it might sound. Just because someone knows a lot about something, doesn’t mean they are aware of their limitations, of how much they don’t know. For evaluating risk, it is often more important to know what you don’t know, than it is to know what you do know. Therefore, by improving your own risk intelligence, you can evaluate how effective an expert is, how reliable their information is, and what risks you are taking to apply it to your own situation. The sort of experts that you would meet on a regular basis that would fall into this category would be doctors and other medical staff, and bank managers and other financial advisory staff.

2) Worst-Case Scenario Thinking – This is when we allow ourselves to be negative and make low-probability scenarios into near certainties, without any logic to back it up. It often creates with it a spiral of demoralising thoughts and even-worse outcomes, none of which are helpful for making a decision. It prevents genuine risk assessment and logical reasoning for a decision and often results in an emotive and poor decision. An example of this could be refusing medical treatment such as surgery to fix a badly-broken leg because of the risk of a low-probability outcome such as death. It can be very easy to become irrational and emotionally-involved and decide that opting for surgery will result in death and therefore it would be better to just live with a bad limp or inability to walk, the outcome of leaving the leg to heal by itself.

3) The Availability Heuristic: Imagination Inflation – estimating the likelihood of something happening based on how easily we remember it happening in the past. The illogicality of this can be seen by the fact that what we are remembering doesn’t need to have happened in real life, but we could have seen it in a film or a computer game. This can result in grossly inflated probabilities. It can also work the other way, with difficult to visualise scenarios being underestimated. For example, we could have been watching the film The Towering Inferno and the following week we come to renew our business’s fire insurance. Vividly remembering the burning building from that film, you are more likely to spend unnecessary money on more comprehensive and expensive cover than you actually require.

By being aware of these flaws and evaluating your thought processes against them when assessing risky decisions you can improve your risk intelligence and the general success of any risk-based decisions you make. Assessing how sure you are something is right or wrong, or is or isn’t going to happen, rather than simply looking at things from a black or white perspective as well as evaluating the outcomes of any decisions you take to improve on your thought process in the future will help you on your way to becoming a more astute risk taker.

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Jessie Hardcastle is a freelance writer from England who specialises in finance and investment for a number of UK journals and blogs. With a growing following she has recently be focussing mainly on the problems close to her London home as Europe continues to falter in the face of political indecision.