UCL News


Press cutting: A safety truism spiked

15 April 2007

"Seat belts save lives" is a phrase often heard in TV advertisements supporting seat-belt laws.

That seat belts save lives is, however, completely false. …

That seat belts do not save lives is best researched and illustrated by Professor John Adams [UCL Geography]. Adams researched the effects of seat-belt laws on accidents and deaths in 26 countries around the world. In a detailed longitudinal analysis, Adams clearly and convincingly is able to show that the adoption of seat-belt laws was not responsible for a decrease in auto fatalities.

Adams also explores the psychological reasoning behind the outcomes. In doing so, he forever guarantees himself a seat among the thought leaders of risk management because his insights have broad and deep implications for the entire field of risk and safety management.

What Adams discovered in his exploration is that there is significant empirical data supporting the theory of "risk compensation." …

If people feel that they are less at risk when wearing a seat belt, they will increase their risk levels in other areas to compensate. For example, they might follow the car in front of them more closely, take turns faster or drive at higher speeds. Over a large number of drivers, these will have the net effect of negating the safety benefits of wearing seat belts. …

Adams suggests that the reader close his eyes and imagine driving a car with poor brakes, no seat belts and a sharp iron spike protruding from the center of the steering column. How would one drive in that car compared to a modern car with seat belts, airbags and anti-lock brakes? Clearly one would drive much more cautiously in the iron-spike-equipped vehicle. …

Risk compensation flies in the face of current safety theory. Safety devices cause accidents, and dangerous situations drive cautious behaviour. For years we have been attempting to make the workplace safer. Perhaps it is time that we question our hackneyed assumptions. At the absolute least, these assumptions should be tested through empirical tests and statistical analysis. Iron spikes might be a better safety device than hard hats.

Beaumont Vance, 'Risk and Insurance'