"Suppose that in 1979 the government had not engineered the first bailout of Chrysler," Will wrote. "Might there have been a more sober approach to risk throughout corporate America?"
Now researchers are positing a risk compensation corollary: humans don't merely tolerate risk, they seek it; each of us has an innate tolerance level of risk, and in any given situation we will act to reduce—or increase—the perceived risk, depending on that level.
The author and principal proponent of this idea is Gerald J.S. Wilde, professor emeritus of psychology at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. In naming his theory "risk homeostasis," Wilde borrowed the word used for the way we humans, without knowing it, regulate our body temperature and other functions. "People alter their behavior in response to the implementation of health and safety measures," Wilde argued in his 1994 book, Target Risk. "But the riskiness of the way they behave will not change, unless those measures are capable of motivating people to alter the amount of risk they are willing to incur." Or, to make people behave more safely, you have to reset their risk thermostats.
That, he says, can be done by rewarding safe behavior. He notes that when California promised free driver's-license renewals for crash-free drivers, accidents went down. When Norway offered insurance refunds to crash-free younger drivers, they had fewer accidents. So did German truck drivers after their employers offered them bonuses for accident-free driving. Studies indicate that people are more likely to stop smoking if doing so will result in lower health and life insurance premiums.
Wilde's idea remains hotly disputed, not least by members of the auto-safety establishment. "Wilde would have us believe that if you acquire a brand-new car with air bags, you will decide to drive your new car with more reckless abandon than your old one," says Anne McCartt, a senior vice president for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit organization funded by auto insurers. "You will be unconcerned that your more reckless driving behavior will increase the chances of crashing and damaging your new car because returning to your previous level of injury risk is what you really crave! Only abstract theoreticians could believe people actually behave this way."
Still, even the institute acknowledges that drivers do compensate for risk to some degree, particularly when a safety feature is immediately obvious to the driver, as with anti-lock brakes. But seat belts? No way, says McCartt.
"We've done a number of studies and did not find any evidence" that drivers change their behavior while wearing them.
Questions over risk compensation will remain unresolved because behavioral change is multidimensional and difficult to measure. But it is clear that to risk is human. One reason Homo sapiens rules the earth is that we are one of history's most daring animals. So how, then, should we mark the 50th anniversary of the seat belt?
By buckling up, of course. And by keeping in mind some advice offered by Tom Vanderbilt in Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us): "When a situation feels dangerous to you, it's probably more safe than you know; when a situation feels safe, that is precisely when you should feel on guard." Those are words even the parachutists, wilderness hikers and investors among us can live by.
William Ecenbarger is a former contributing editor for Reader's Digest.