Do Safer Cars Lead to Reckless Driving?

by | Apr 9, 2018


Cars continue to become safer and safer. New cars today have airbags all over the place, crunch zones, and some even take over braking to avoid collisions. Here’s a great video showing a crash test between a smaller 2009 Chevy Malibu vs. a larger and heavier 1959 Chevy Bel Air.

While, the great improvements in safety have reduced automobile accident injuries and death, it is possible that such safety measures may induce us to be greater risk-takers and more reckless drivers.  That is a possible conclusion of a study published in 2008 looking at NASCAR race car safety and rates of accidents. The study, “Automobile safety regulation and the incentive to drive recklessly: Evidence from NASCAR,” found that NASCAR drivers drive more recklessly in response to the increased safety of their vehicles. In fact, the study found that every time a new safety device was introduced, the number of accidents actually increased.

This idea that additional safety devices can cause risk-seeking it called the “Risk Compensation Theory” and it is applicable beyond just automobiles.

Other research has also concluded that additional safety measures may make drivers more reckless. A University of Chicago economist, Dr. Sam Peltzman studied vehicle crash statistics before and after the requirement of seat belts and other safety measures in cars such as padded dashboards and dual braking systems (this occurred in the 1950s). Dr. Peltzman found that the cars with the additional safety devices were involved in materially higher proportion of crashes.   Other studies have found that subjects that usually don’t wear seat-belts often drive faster after buckling up.

A study entitled “Risk Compensation and Bicycle Helmets” in the Journal Risk Analysis found that cyclists showed “increased cycling speed and decreased risk perception in a helmet-on compared to a helmet-off condition among cyclists used to wearing helmets.” On the other hand, a 2012 study of use of helmets when skiing found no increased risk-taking for helmet wearers.


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