And that indeed is very telling of us humans and our attitudes towards risk taking. Psychologist Gerald Wilde points out that humans have a tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking on greater risks in another. Such an attitude was evidently at work during a German experiment (as described by Malcolm Gladwell). A group of taxis were fitted with ABS while another were left untouched. And other than the ABS, both groups were identical. For a period of 3 years, these taxis were observed in secret. Logically speaking, the taxis with ABS ought to be safer. But the results revealed that the opposite was true. They tended to drive more recklessly by tailgating more and driving faster. They used the additional safety to drive more recklessly without increasing their accident risk. In which case, the introduction of ABS probably did not do much to improve road safety (at least in Germany).
Yet, improving road safety has been one major area which car manufacturers devote huge amounts of research and development towards. Volvo, for example, is extremely proud of its collision avoidance system. But if past experience and theory holds true, then perhaps such systems may prove to be a massive waste of resources. If, we drivers, are going to act like the German taxi drivers, then they are not going to make much of an impact on accident rates. And I guess it will probably be the case that protected by the safety of a system like Volvo's collision avoidance system, motorists may well multi-task even more on the roads. How about coffee or breakfast while caught in the morning peak hour traffic jam? How about a shave or putting on some eyeliner? And why not, since it would be near impossible to bump the car in front with the safety system?
In which case, it might just be cheaper to leave things as they are and focus R&D dollars on other projects like environmental friendliness.
Credits: Malcolm Gladwell, "Blowup", The New Yorker