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How the Theory of Risk Compensation Affects Your Personal Safety

November 30, 2016

driving.jpgPrior to 1967 Swedes drove on the left-hand side of the road. Högertrafikomläggningen is the day that Sweden switched all traffic to the right-hand side of the road. Picture that scenario. Imagine driving in the opposite direction on familiar streets, looking over a different shoulder while changing lanes, or reflexively reaching for the shifter with the wrong hand. You'd be trying to overcome years of muscle memory and habits.

Now imagine all of your fellow motorists suddenly experiencing this together on the road. Scary? You might think it was a rough time for Swedish car insurance representatives.

You’d be wrong.

Auto accident claims were 40% lower than typical the first 6 weeks after Högertrafikomläggningen. It took two years before accident rates increased to the level before the change. How could this happen? Millions of drivers were relearning how to drive at the same time. We would expect accident rates to skyrocket, but the opposite happened.

The theory of risk compensation

The theory of risk compensation ­suggests people adjust their behavior according to perceived risk. Where people perceive greater risk they act more cautiously. When they feel more protected they act less careful. Swedish drivers perceived driving related risk to be much greater and compensated for that risk. They were hyper-vigilant during the transition.

Bill Booth, a skydiving pioneer, intuitively understood risk compensation. ‘Booth’s Rule #2” states:

“The safer skydiving gear becomes, the more chances skydivers will take, in order to keep the fatality rate constant.”

Over the decades skydiving equipment has made tremendous improvements in safety technology and reliability, yet the fatality rate has remained remarkably consistent.

Select International’s research demonstrates that each individual has their own acceptable risk threshold, the level at which they exhibit caution. It is reasonable to assume that skydivers, as a group, are more comfortable with risky activities than the general population. They are thrill seeking individuals. They jump out of planes! As safety equipment improved, skydivers increased their risky behaviors to compensate for their perceptions of increased personal safety.

It’s a fascinating theory.

Does any of your behavior support this theory?

I can think of a recent personal experience that affirms this theory. It happened at, of all places, this year’s National Safety Council Congress & Expo. I was staying on the 15th floor of the convention hotel. I was on my way to meet some colleagues for dinner. Several fellow convention goers were waiting with me to catch an elevator down to the lobby. An elevator door opened and then immediately began to close again.

I stuck my hand between the doors to keep the doors from closing. I travel a lot. I’m pretty experienced when it comes to elevator usage. If you insert your hand or foot in between closing doors they stop closing and open again. There is a sensor that stops elevator dismemberment. I’ve done it countless times and I reflexively did it again. Completely comfortable with this maneuver, I knew the sensor would keep me safe. I perceived no risk and acted accordingly.

Except this time the elevator kept closing. The elevator was merciless. Luckily I escaped with a slight pinch on the tip of my index and forefinger. It wanted to eat my hand. How embarrassing would it have been if I had injured myself at a safety conference? It was an interesting experience riding down the elevator 15 floors with several safety experts giving their analysis of what happened. One of my elevator mates, consummate safety professional that he was, immediately went to the front desk to alert them of the malfunction.


It’s important to recognize risk compensation in your life and its impact on your behavior. Think of a time when you perceived a high level of risk to your personal safety. Did you exhibit a higher level of caution? Were you more aware of your surroundings? Think of a time when you felt very safe. Did you feel more comfortable taking risks in that situation? Overcoming complacency begins with self-awareness. Behave like a Swedish driver, skydive cautiously, and don’t let that elevator eat your hand.

Understanding Employees' SafetyDNA

Brian Dishman Brian Dishman is a Senior Consultant at PSI. He educates safety leaders on the internal factors that impact employee safety. Brian focuses on safety leadership, safety culture development, and the psychology of safety.