Can too much safety lead to unintended consequences?

Do you think the reason why there has been a surge in accidents involving the use of cell phones while driving in part stems from vehicles having more safety features requiring less attention by the driver? 

Greg Ip’s recent book, “Foolproof – Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe,” delves into how human success over the years has led to disasters -- the lessons from which we should learn.1

Think about it, how often have you let your sense of safety result in your taking more chances?  Ip notes that memory and experience shape our behavior; the more our sense of danger, the greater care we take.2 As our surroundings become safer our tolerance for taking risk increases.  When we experience long stretches of stability, we tend to push the envelope of risk. Eventually, that stability comes to an end in ways we never could or would anticipate.

As the chief economics commentator for The Wall Street Journal, Ip taps into the risk people will take with their investments, which in my opinion is no less risky, if not more so, than taking risk with our safety.

Truly risk-free?

The food industry and FDA regulators have worked hard to foster belief in the complete safety of the industry.3 We could say the same about industry in general and OSHA regulations. Consider the colossal number of hours spent in the past several decades weeding out the perceived, known, and anticipated risks workers encounter in their daily routines. 

To what avail? 

The number of injuries has decreased; but the type of incidents leading to injuries has remained relatively unchanged for decades. Plus, the severity of the resulting injuries appears to be dramatically increasing. Why? Could it be that workers have developed a false sense of safety? In other words, the probability of getting hurt is vastly overshadowed by the belief that so much emphasis has been placed on safety that the likelihood one is going to get hurt is low to nonexistent.

Fear elevates risk aversion

George Loewenstein, an economist at Carnegie Mellon, notes people are generally terrible at predicting how they will react to a stressful event prior to it occurring.4 Have you ever found yourself in a situation where your assistance was needed to provide CPR to a stranger, but you froze even though you are certified to administer CPR?  Loewenstein and his colleagues conclude in their research that “fear” significantly elevates risk aversion.5  

Ip notes that Loewenstein’s findings and the role “fear” plays in our lives is why we place enormous value on safety.  “We would rather be safe than sorry” as the old saying goes. 

But do we really?

Scores of YouTube videos show people doing some pretty stupid things that land them in the hospital. The Hoverboard rage last Christmas showed a number of adults attempting to ride and falling for their efforts.

Safety advances spur risk-taking

Recall NFL players using their helmets to make helmet-to-helmet tackles resulting in serious injuries. Mike Ditka, retired Chicago Bears head coach, suggested on ESPN Radio that ditching the helmets will solve this problem. Modern day helmets designed to save players from concussions have turned into weapons on the football field. As Ip points out, this conundrum has frustrated safety experts for decades, not just in sports, but automobiles, finance, and I dare say industry. Everything we do involves, to some degree, an element of risk. But reducing risk increases our appetite for the risk-involving activity. This counters the benefit of whatever safety measure is employed in the activity.6

Sam Peltzman, a University of Chicago economist, in 1975 studied automotive safety innovations (e.g., seatbelts) installed since 1966 to ascertain if they reduced injuries. He found the innovations indeed reduced death and injury per accident. But this was offset by a rise in pedestrian injuries and property damage.  He concluded, “Risky driving has a price: the possibility of getting hurt.  Seatbelts and other safety devices reduce the price; making risky driving cheaper, thus more people will do it leading to more accidents.” His research earned him the nickname Seatbelt Sam and the term the Peltzman Effect.7  

As safety professionals, should we explore the relevance of the Peltzman Effect when introducing a new safety device or measure? Do workers issued new safety devices exhibit riskier behavior? Will that behavior endanger other workers?

A personal “risk thermostat”

Ip introduces Gerald Wilde, a psychologist at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, who argues that everyone has a “risk thermostat” that adjusts one’s behavior until their preferred level of risk is achieved.

Peltzman’s and Wilde’s research was contested for years until Adrian Lund at the Institute for Highway Safety demonstrated their research’s validity with the introduction of studded snow tires and antilock braking systems versus seatbelts. According to Lund, the difference lies in the feedback of the safety device to the task of driving.8

When you introduce a safety device that provides some form of feedback to the user, consider if the device will lead to taking risks.

Ramp up the danger?

Perhaps we need to spend less time making our workplaces safer and risk-free and turn our efforts to making our work environments more dangerous.

By doing so, we raise the element of fear, which translates into workers not taking foolish risks that lead to hurting themselves. The dilemma comes in avoiding risks that will help us versus taking risk that will harm us. It may seem easy to distinguish between taking bad risk versus good, but for most of us this distinction is not obvious.

My suggestion is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the empirical data confirms that people have varying degrees of risk tolerance, and as safety professionals we need to recognize as one of Greg Ip’s interviewees quoted her Japanese peer9, “If you think you are safe, you are dangerous. If you think you are dangerous, you are safe.”

1  Ip, G. 2015. Foolproof – Why safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe. Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY.

2  Ibid. pp. 8.

3  Ibid. pp. 65.

4  Ibid. pp. 68.

5  Ibid. pp. 69.

6  Ibid. pp. 89.

7  Ibid. pp. 94-95.

8  Ibid. pp. 101-102.

9  Ibid. pp. 243.