Taking More Risks Because You Feel Safe

Prudent bicyclists wear helmets, but motorists who see the helmets may drive less prudently around those cyclists.
Prudent bicyclists wear helmets, but motorists who see the helmets may drive less prudently around those cyclists. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, June 9, 2008

The housing market is in free fall: Quick -- let's protect homeowners against foreclosure.

The country is in recession: Quick -- let's give Americans money to spend to restart the economy.

Big Wall Street firms are failing: Quick -- let's bail out businesses that are "too big to fail."

Trying to fix problems that affect vast numbers of people has an intuitive appeal that politicians and policymakers find irresistible, but several warehouses of research studies show that intuition is often a poor guide to fixing systemic problems. While it seems like common sense to pump money into an economy that is pulling the bedcovers over its head, the problem with most social interventions is that they target not robots and machines but human beings -- who regularly respond to interventions in contrarian, paradoxical and unpredictable ways.

"How well does government do in helping the market to improve what it does?" asked Clifford Winston, an economist at the Brookings Institution and the author of the 2006 book "Market Failure Versus Government Failure." "The research consistently finds that, in fact, government efforts to correct market failures have little effect, or actually make things worse."

"There is a tendency for people to say, 'If things are safer, then I will take more risk,' " he added. "It does not have to involve government interventions: Drugs are developed to reduce blood pressure, so people say, 'Okay, I can eat more, and it does not matter if I gain weight, because I can take this pill.'"

Previous research has shown that people drive faster in vehicles that feel safer, attempt to bike on more dangerous terrain when they wear helmets and pay less attention to infants being bathed when the children are in seats that are said to reduce the risk of drowning.

Winston does not believe in one-size-fits-all solutions -- whether interventionist approaches that liberals favor, or the hands-off strategies that conservatives prefer. Rather, he argues that solutions need to be tailored to produce measurably successful outcomes.

He once studied the effect of installing air bags in cars at a time when automakers were offering customers the option of buying cars with and without the safety devices. Winston found that people who bought cars with air bags tended to be the safest drivers to begin with. And now, lulled into a sense of security, they tended to drive faster, effectively canceling out the safety benefits.

The wrong lesson to draw from this is that air bags are useless. The right lesson is that air bags can improve safety when they are targeted at the riskiest drivers. As the safety devices become standard issue, for example, risky drivers are automatically protected. And as the safest drivers stop feeling they are extra safe, they may take their foot off the gas.

When it comes to measurably reducing accident injuries in the short run, the most effective thing might be to try to reduce accidents in the first place, Winston said. He pointed out that a large fraction of accidents involve young people who have been drinking. "Things that are more targeted to discourage alcohol consumption among youth would be far better than saying, 'Let's try to make the vehicle as safe as possible.' "

Traffic psychologist Ian Walker at the University of Bath in England once conducted a similar experiment that vividly illustrates the problem with well-intentioned interventions that backfire.

Walker rode a bicycle equipped with a distance sensor, video camera and a computer. Over 15-to-20-minute periods, he rode with his helmet on, then with his helmet off. He rode some segments three feet from the curb and others closer to the edge of the road. With each iteration, he changed a single variable. In the interest of being rigorous, he even obtained a shoulder-length wig of curly black hair, so that some passing motorists would think he was a woman.

It is not known whether any drivers turned around for a look after they passed the bicyclist. If they did, they would have been puzzled: "It was slightly embarrassing, because I had a beard at the time," Walker said. "I spent a couple of days going up and down the road wig on, and a couple of days going up and down the road, wig off."

Walker was trying to figure out whether his interventions changed the way drivers passed his bike. He came to two conclusions: Cars gave him more leeway when drivers thought he was a woman with curly black hair. And they gave him less leeway -- getting dangerously close -- when he wore a helmet.

Walker thinks drivers are influenced by unconscious stereotypes -- they may believe that female bicyclists are less steady, and that helmeted bikers are pros.

Again, it would be an error to draw the simplistic conclusion that bike helmets are a bad idea. Wearing a helmet does seem to change how you and other people on the road perceive risk -- but doing away with helmet laws could have unintended consequences, too.

"One big problem when you talk about risk is the extent to which people have an accurate idea of it -- I don't believe people have an accurate idea of the risks they are looking at," Walker said. "If they have just seen something happen to another person, people believe it is more likely to happen to them."

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