More or Less Safe? Fighting Risk Homeostasis in Public Safety

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. Click here for the previous article.

Gordon Graham here and hello again. Thanks for the emails following my last article—and you are right! When he died in a plane crash last year, former MLB player Roy Halladay was flying an ICON A5. I am told by my pilot friends this is an excellent aircraft. And along with planes in the Cirrus family, it is equipped with—are you ready?—it is equipped with a PARACHUTE.

Now this is just remarkable! An airplane with a parachute built in—who wudda ever thunk? My gosh, this has got to be the safest private plane in the world. Well, before you jump to any conclusions, please remember the focus of this article: risk homeostasis. Perhaps it is time for an explanation of that concept. Following is what the Quora website has to say:

Risk homeostasis is a hypothesis posited by Gerald J.S. Wilde, a professor of psychology at Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada, dealing with the notion that every person has an acceptable amount of risk that they find tolerable. If the perceived level of risk in one part of a person’s life changes, they will compensate by either reducing or increasing the amount and severity of risks they take—all in order to maintain an equilibrium of perceived risk.

In other words, if I see an activity as being safe, I’m likely to take more chances—either consciously or unconsciously—at least until it reaches my individual perceived level of “acceptable risk.” The opposite also holds true—if I see an activity as risky, I’m likely to button down and be more careful. All in the service of maintaining the level of risk I’m comfortable with.

One example of risk homeostasis often cited is a 1994 traffic study in Munich, in which a subset of taxicab drivers was given cabs equipped with anti-lock brakes (ABS), while a control sample of drivers was given cabs identical to the test sample, except that they lacked ABS. The results of the study showed roughly the same amount of accidents in both the ABS and non-ABS-equipped drivers, leading Wilde to the conclusion that those who were given the extra safety equipment drove more aggressively, and thus kept the accident rate constant.

Back to Mr. Halladay (who also threw a perfect game in his career). It did not help that he had traces of morphine, amphetamine and Ambien in his system at the time of the crash, but I wonder if risk homeostasis also played a role in this terrible event. Did that parachute make him feel just a little bit safer than he was?

There are many other examples of this phenomenon in our daily lives. A couple years ago I was at the National Park Service headquarters in Lakewood, Colo., and a group of us walked across a wide four-lane highway to get to lunch. When one of the people I was with commented, “They need a crosswalk here,” I got to thinking about some past studies I have read on this topic. Do crosswalks make pedestrians more safe or less safe? Do crosswalks give pedestrians a false sense of security?

You must consider consequences prior to making a decision. Consequences include long-term, short-term, intended—and here is the big one—unintended consequences.

Mrs. Graham has a newer SUV with the “radar” that beeps when you are closing in on a vehicle in front of you. Who comes up with these ideas? Does this make you more safe or less safe? Her SUV also has warning lights in the side mirrors with built-in radar. The mirror lights go from no color when everything’s clear, to yellow when there is a car near you, to red when a car is adjacent to you. The SUV also emits a beeping sound if you activate the turn signal when a car is next to you. Wow! Does this make drivers more safe or less safe? I had the opportunity to drive this vehicle on a road trip and found myself getting sloppy and not checking over my shoulder to see if the adjacent lane was clear—because I knew I could rely on the car to do it for me.

For decades, the motorcycle of choice for law enforcement was the Harley-Davidson. Then there was a transition to other brands, including Suzuki, Kawasaki and Honda. Then the BMW people got involved in the bidding process with the claim that their bikes had anti-lock brakes! With this better braking system motorcycle cops will be more safe! In fact, some of the departments that went with the BMW experienced a higher rate of crashes with the better brakes. Why? With better brakes I can drive faster and take more risks!

Do backup cameras on cars make drivers more safe or less safe? Do fire shelters make wildland firefighters more safe or less safe? How about the hoods firefighters wear under their helmets? If you talk to old (and I mean old) firefighters, you will hear, “Your ears will tell you when to get out of a burning building.” When I first heard this comment, I thought the firefighters listened to the fire. But it’s not a hearing issue—rather, your ears got so hot you had to get out of the building. Well, we do not want firefighters to get their ears burned, so we gave them hoods. Now they stay in burning buildings longer and go in deeper and occasionally these buildings collapse on firefighters. So, do these hoods make firefighters more safe or less safe?

I’m sure you have experienced risk homeostasis—times in your life where you saw something that was thought to make people more safe, but in fact had the opposite outcome.

Some of the departments that went with the BMW experienced a higher rate of crashes with the better brakes. Why? With better brakes I can drive faster and take more risks!

Let me close with this. Part of my decision-making process is the critical component of “consequence analysis.” You must consider consequences prior to making a decision. Consequences include long-term, short-term, intended—and here is the big one—unintended consequences. Please put the topic of risk homeostasis in your thinking when you consider these unintended consequences.

Here is a teaser for our next visit together. Even when you factor in complacency, fatigue, distractions, hubris and risk homeostasis, it is rare that good people make mistakes when they are involved in events they encounter with high frequency. Dr. Gary Klein’s thoughts regarding “recognition-primed decision-making” are spot on. Things we do a lot we tend to do very well. Mistakes are most likely to occur on low-frequency events where we lack experience.

I am now past my word count for this article, but I have to mention this: When I had the idea for this article, I was at the exclusive Comfort Suites in Manheim, Penn., presenting to a mixed group of first responders. It was 0430 and I was about to embark on the most risky thing I would do that day: getting into the bathtub to take a shower!

I have spent way too much time in various hotels around this great nation and I have learned that every hotel bathroom is different. The height of the tub that I will be stepping into varies; the Cf (friction coefficient) on the bathtub floor is different. Some hotels provide a rubber mat for usage to increase the Cf, but many do not. The slope of the bathtub floor varies from hotel to hotel. The controls for the hot water are different.

My point is that every time I get into a hotel shower, it’s a “low-frequency for me” event. So I have to be acutely aware of my surroundings and the setup of the involved shower. I will spend a good solid minute or so looking at the bathtub set-up prior to undertaking this task. This may seem trivial to you, but I do not want to slip and fall in a hotel shower and end up dead.

Thanks again for your continued support. I will be back next month—and if the stay-at-home order is lifted between now and then, you better bet I’ll be carefully navigating any hotel showers I encounter.

Gordon Graham

GORDON GRAHAM is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management approach to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.

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