Recently I had lunch with a few people and the topic of risk compensation came up. Also referred to as the Peltzman Effect, risk compensation is a theory that suggests that people change their behavior in response to pereceived risk. For example, some claim that the introduction of seatbelts has had no net positive effect because drivers began driving faster because of it. If you read the Wikipedia article, you’ll see more proposed cases of risk compensation in areas of sports, safety equipment and health.

We talked about the NFL and the rise of concussions (or recognition of them) as well as helmet technology around it. One interesting thought that came up was the idea that the birth of the modern football helmet has led to an increase in dangerous activity by players. Now that the safety equipment worn by players is perceived to be very safe, it leads to players making more risky decisions. When players previously wore leather helmets, they might be more unwilling to lead a tackle with their head because of the obvious risk. On the other side, now that helmets seem so safe, players are more willing to tackle with their head first. Recent rules in the NFL are trying to eliminate helmet tackles so this example of risk compensation might no longer be relevant.

Later I began thinking of how other changes in technology might trigger similar behavior adjustments. The most obvious that comes to mind is the rise of blindspot detection and pseudo self-driving cars. As drivers get used to their car’s computer warning them when a car is coming up behind them, their perception of the risk of changing lanes might change. While I have never driven a car like this before, I can imagine that drivers will slowly check less and less when they are changing lanes or maneuvering on the highway. In due time as technology matures and more cars become self-driving, the actual risk might disappear as drivers no longer are responsible for making decisions on the road.

In the lull between cars of today and the driverless cars of tomorrow, I believe that risky behavior by drivers of pseudo smart cars will increase. Drivers might no longer check their lanes or even take their hands completely off the wheel. In the summer of 2016, a man was killed when his Tesla ran into the back of a large 18-wheeler. Ever since the release of the ‘autopilot’ feature, Tesla has tried to convince drivers to keep their hands on the wheel even when the feature is on. Unfortunately many drivers hear the word autopilot and trust it too much, especially while the technology is in its infancy. Until we reach completely autonomous cars, I’m afraid accidents like this might continue as drivers fail to realize the actual risk while on the roads.

As technology moves forward in mission-critical areas like healthcare, transportation and heavy industries, I’m curious to see how the divide between perceived and actual risk (hopefully) narrows.