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Risk homeostasis hypothesis: a rebuttal
  1. Brian O'Neill,
  2. Allan Williams
  1. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute, 1005 N Glebe Road, Arlington, VA 22201, USA
  1. Correspondence to: Mr O'Neill.

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In his latest overview published as an “Opinion”, Wilde asserts that “The theory of risk homeostasis (also known as `risk compensation') was primarily developed and validated in the area of road safety”. Nothing could be further from the truth. These so-called theories that purport to explain human behavior in the face of risk are nothing more than hypotheses with a large body of empirical evidence refuting the studies that allegedly validate them.

Risk homeostasis proponents start with the plausible notion that individuals' perceptions of risk can influence behavior, but then the proponents implausibly extend this notion to develop a theory of universal behavior. Thus, according to the “theory”, if you acquire a brand new car with airbags, which reduces the risk of a life threatening head or chest injury in a serious frontal crash, you will decide to drive your new car with more reckless abandon than your old one because your risk of a serious injury is now lower. 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, and one wonders whether some advocates of risk homeostasis have even thought about their own behavior when they get a new “safer” car.

What about studies cited by proponents that allegedly prove this is how people do behave? After all, Wilde cites an article claiming to show that “airbag equipped cars tend to be driven more aggressively and that …

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