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.

3 thoughts on “How Car Safety Features are Reducing Risk Intelligence on the Road

  1. Not all drivers are equal. Surely some, whose driving behavior does not change, will benefit considerably from air bags, abs braking and so on, while other, less mindful souls become worse drivers because of an exaggerated sense of safety. This seems reasonable, and would imply that safety benefits accrue disproportionly to ‘better’ drivers, while the safety features help other drivers remove themselves from the gene pool.
    One must also consider that the injured party is not always the party who made the riskier driving decisions
    Finally, there are significant confounding factors in the data which could easily invalidate the whole thing,such as increased traffic densities, higher volume road layouts, increased HP (definitely not a safety feature)and lower cost of cars shifting the socioeconomics of car ownership so that young, stupid people can afford them.

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