Risk Compensation

Risk protection is normally done to minimize the harm a particular activity can do to us. There are various things we do to reduce our risk, to make ourselves safer.

Behaviour scientists point out that taking measures to reduce the harm we can do to ourselves, can actually make us take more risks, with the added knowledge that there is a safety check in place. This is known as Risk Compensation.

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When Safety Proves Dangerous

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  • When automobile safety laws were introduced, the drivers started taking more risks while driving, leading to more pedestrian accidents.
  • Children (and even adults) take more physical risks while playing a sport with protective gear.
  • Safety features like Anti-lock brakes in vehicles ended up increasing the accidents for taxi drivers in Germany
  • Child-proof caps on medicine bottles made parents careless about their being opened by kids, including the ones which don’t have the safety feature.

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Having a safety device in place, and armed with the knowledge that we can push the envelope a bit, the appetite for risk increases.

  • People who have an emergency fund in place tend to be less careful about their investments.
  • People wearing a face-mask in this global pandemic feel like they are safer in crowded places (It’s a face mask, not an Iron Man suit).

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This means that enforcing measures that supposedly make people safer, will lead to changes in behaviour almost like a reflex action, compensating for the extra safety and to maintain the ‘desired’ level of risk, making it a zero-sum action.

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If something has been made safer (like fitting sports bikes with disk brakes) then it does not mean the risk has been eliminated, as it may just put a different group of people (like pedestrians) in increased danger. This is known as Risk Transfer.

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  • Safety measures need to be invisible, and not marketed or glorified.
  • Prudent behaviour needs to be rewarded, giving people an incentive to stay within limits.
  • Taking an action to decrease risk isn’t always a good strategy. We sometimes end up just changing the nature of the danger.
  • A change for increasing safety may need further rules or measures for the right implementation.
  • When people feel less safe, they are, in fact, more alert and it leads to fewer or milder accidents. This is seen when people drive with extra care in foggy or icy roads.

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