Driver safety and the psychology of risk

Could automotive safety features lead us take more risks on the road?

Like many car companies, Volvo has long been working to make driving safer by developing more sophisticated safety features. But Volvo's ultimate goal is an ambitious one for an automaker -- their vision is that by 2020 no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car.

A completely safe driving experience certainly sounds appealing, but could safety features that hold the promise of a "deathproof" car actually encourage drivers to take more risks?

Gerald Wilde is psychology professor emeritus at Queen's University. During his time at Queen's, Gerald proposed a theory called "risk homeostasis", which says that  "people perceive a certain amount of risk.. and they compare that with the amount of risk they're willing to take, and if there is a discrepancy, then people will try to make an adjustment, either by becoming more daring, or by becoming more cautious." 

Gerald cites an experiment in which a taxi company in Munich, Germany outfitted half of their fleet with ABS brakes, and half the fleet with the older braking system. The study found that those with ABS brakes took more risks while driving, and, in the end, did not reduce the number of accidents.

So is a car that is completely safe actually possible? Gerald says, "If the past of the traffic engineering measures are at all predictive of the future, then I don't think the future looks all that bright." 


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