Safety's Two-Edged Sword

E-mail Melanie Martella

Considering how much time we spend in our cars, it's a good thing the safety of these vehicles is increasing all the time. Or is it? A recent article posted on found that as our cars get safer, we drive more aggressively, offsetting the positive effect.

We're a very adaptable species (something the local flora and fauna view as regrettable, I'm sure) and while this trait comes in remarkably handy as we make our way through the world, that very adaptability can have some surprising side-effects. Put simply, if you make something safer, we'll just push the envelope harder. Take the article I mentioned. The gist of the article is that, given a choice of two cars, one of which has added safety features and the other of which is a death-trap, some people will drive more aggressively in the safer car, neatly negating any benefits offered by the safety features. Fred Mannering, one of the researchers behind the study, owns both a vintage MG sports car and a newer vehicle, and says "The contrast is dramatic. When I'm driving the MG, I definitely make a special effort not to tailgate or accelerate quickly when roads are slick because I don't have the antilock brakes, traction control and the other advanced safety features of the newer car."

Here in New England, I see this behavior often in the winter, when SUVs go whipping along on slick roads. The drivers tend to ignore the minor point that a much heavier (and more top-heavy) vehicle on an iffy surface is going to skid much, much farther and be harder to control than a smaller, lower one. Which is why so many of them seem to end up decorating the ditches. Here in the land of SUVs and pickup trucks, I (and my little car) drive with greater care because I know that any of these monster vehicles could take me out.

The Offset Effect
We've seen a massive increase in research and development of advanced safety features for cars: side airbags, stability control, improved seat belts (including air bags in the seat belts), vision systems to help spot drivers departing from their lanes and other potential problems, and sensor systems to improve parking, to name a few. The paradox, however, is that if the experience with airbags and anti-lock brakes is anything to go by (and there's no reason to consider it an anomaly), people exposed to these more advanced systems will drive more poorly precisely because they feel safer. Scary, isn't it?

Cars aren't the only place this occurs. A great book on the subject is Edward Tenner's "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences" which is full of related stories.

So what's your take on this? Please scroll down to the end of the page to comment. Let us know what you think.