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Jun
11
2013

Pater knows best?

Risk compensation – the proposition that a person’s perception of risk influences their risk-taking behaviour – has now become conventional wisdom.  No one now disputes that rock climbers with ropes will attempt manoeuvres that they would not attempt without them, or that trapeze artists will attempt manoeuvres with nets that they would not attempt without. The insurance industry calls it “moral hazard” and accepts that people with insurance take more risks than those without.  Financial regulators now acknowledge that banks that believe themselves, and their trading partners, to be too big to fail will take risks that others would not – confident of their government safety net.

Risk compensation has become conventional wisdom with a peculiar blind spot  – seat belt laws. Seat belts have become the popular metaphor for just about anything that offers protection against just about anything. Googling “fasten your seat belts” yields half a million hits – almost none of which has anything to do with road safety: the top hit at the time of writing this is “Fasten your seat belts – a balance of payments crisis looms”.

Repetition has created a constantly self-reinforcing myth that has rendered belief in the efficacy of seat belt laws impervious to attack. A new book entitled Against Autonomy: justifying coercive paternalism has just been called to my attention.  Its cover announces seat belts as its iconic exemplar of effective “coercive paternalism”. Conly deploys the “success” of seatbelt laws as a justification for further applications of coercive paternalism such as banning smoking:

“… we see widespread acceptance of seat belt laws, even for adults who are sober, rational, competent, and so on, because they so clearly prevent great harms in circumstances where there is no other way to stave off the damage that will otherwise ensue. “ (p5)

 Screen Shot 2013-06-10 at 12.07.34

 No need to cite evidence. Their prevention of great harm is so clear and obvious.

Such routinely reiterated publicity for the life-saving effect of seat belt laws helps to explain why they don’t save lives. The risk compensation effect works through perception. If you perceive that something will make you safer you will modify your behavior. Both the belt itself, and the incessant publicity for hugely exaggerated claims for its effectiveness, help to account for the fact, now acknowledged even by supporters of the law amongst the leadership of Britain’s Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, (see “Seat belt laws: why we should keep them”), that Britain’s seat belt law led to an increase in the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists killed.

The law didn’t work precisely because coercive paternalism was overridden by autonomous drivers. Pater could compel them to belt up, but could not compel them to want to be safer than they chose to be.

A thoughtful review of Against Autonomy by the person who brought it to my attention can be found here – http://grumpyarthistorian.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/sarah-conlys-against-autonomy-reviewed.html .

Readers new to this argument can catch up here – http://www.john-adams.co.uk/category/seat-belts/

1 comment

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  1. Dave Wakeling says:

    At the risk of emulating the space station fleetingly invading an astronomer’s sky I have a theory to test about seat belts. If you know anything about simple physics you may eventually guess what my theory may involve.
    I found your reports on seat belt safety and dubious correlations whilst doing some simple research into a theory I have about the causes of breast cancer. The increased incidence of this cancer is a modern phenomenon which is almost exclusively a “developed country” problem. (non-deprived areas)
    I have personal experience of skin tissue cells being affected by continual use of seat belts and a mechanism to explain it. I once explained it to my doctor who was convinced enough to say that he would contact a mate of his at Marsden Cancer Hospital to pass it by him…but he retired before he mentioned it.
    Any research will require a big statistical hit from a post-grad researcher based on female working and driving; incidence of breast cancer 1970- 2011; female driving licence take-up; seat belt law dates vs breast cancer incidence; etc. etc.
    Am I nuts? No…just a retired C. Chem. who sings sea shanties and thinks a bit.
    regards Dave W

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