In other words, if I'm doing something and I think it gets dangerous, I'll act to make it safer. But conversely if I think it gets safer, my actions may well alter to make it more dangerous again. Safety lobbies are well aware of this second element to risk compensation, and are nervous of it.
The reaction of a person to a perceived risk is dependent on a number of variables:
"Cycling in London?" a friend said a few months ago, "That's suicide, that is!"
I asked if he would cycle in London. "No way, mate," was his reply, "I'd take the tube. You're one of those lycra nutters in disguise."
It seems that my friend and I have wildly differing perceptions of the risk of cycling in the capital. As far as I am concerned, it's a busy road system that often jams, and has a lot of taxis. He seems to think that everyone is out to get him. Naturally, I think that I am right.
That level of confidence affects how I cycle. I know there aren't Mad Max- style crazed motorists out there, so I don't huddle in the gutter, moving along at a snail's pace and jumping out of my skin with every beep or siren. I claim my lane-space confidently. I'll squeeze through gaps in the knowledge that one of the motorists won't try to crush me out of spite, because in my perception motorists aren't like that.
What might change the way I cycle? Well, I got two new toys over the last year that have done just that.
I got some handlebar ends with my new commuter bike, figuring that they might be handy for Bristol's tight hills. And they are. But since they form a metal cage around your hands, they also take away the fear of hitting your hands on objects to your sides. I am protected. My level of risk has reduced. And to compensate - quite unconciously - I now ride closer to things and squeeze through narrower gaps. I'm taking bigger risks.
I also got a helmet, but I don't wear that much now. Feeling that my life was protected made me ride even closer to the edge of the envelope. And never mind whether or not I was putting myself in danger; I found myself behaving like an asshole, cutting people up, and generally Giving Cyclists A Bad Name. I scared myself with how I was riding. Risk compensation is one of the reasons I don't wear a helmet any more.
The other reason I don't wear a helmet is this: As a motorist, if I cut a cyclist up (sorry guys, but it happens occasionally) and she's wearing a helmet, I think, "Oops, still, she'd have been okay." If I cut up a cyclist without a lid, I come over in a cold sweat, thinking, "Shit, I could have killed her!" Riding without a helmet makes drivers think about what they're doing; it makes them fear hurting you. Their perceived risk increases from the risk of injuring a cyclist to the risk of killing one - and they drive better for it.
So overall, then, it seems that the more protected you are and the more confident you are in your own skills, the more confidently you ride - ultimately behaving like you own the road. Every cycling guide you can read will tell you that confidence is essential for safe cycling - just don't do what I did and turn into an asshole! Take the precautions you feel you need.
Now we come to the cyclist's natural enemy on the roads (according to some) - motorists. Since the road safety lobby got rolling, cars have become safer and safer - for the driver. ABS, air bags, side-impact bars... better visibility, road-holding and handling: the modern driver is as safe as houses.
Which means he'll compensate.
Which means he'll drive like an idiot.
I may be being harsh. But, watching cars hammer down a 30mph road in my area at over 60, I don't think so. A driver interviewed for the BBC series Traffic said, "It's good when you can do a difficult bit of road well, and if it's an easy road, then going fast makes it difficult."
All that protection, all that "safest car in its class" hype, just serves to insulate drivers from what they're actually doing - throwing a ton and a half of metal along the road at deadly speeds. Safest for whom? For the driver, naturally. In fact, the same tests showed that the Megane is one of the deadliest cars in its class if you're on the outside. So pray, if you ever get hit, that it's not by a Megane.
Drivers will say, "The car's got the handling for it," you will hear, or,"Corners like it's on rails," or "It's got brakes that staple you to the road," or the really insidious, "It wants to be driven fast."
But then, as long as the driver's safe, what does he care?
The drivers' perceived risk is low - very low. Safe enough to use a mobile phone, or drink a coffee... safer than you are at home, the motor industry would like you to think. It's worth pointing out some of the risks that aren't immediately obvious inside a driver's air-conditioned coffin, in the hope that drivers will compensate and behave more cautiously.
There's a drink-driving poster out right now. Its message is worth remembering:
Unfair to motorists? What about cyclist-caused fatalities? In 1998 there were 3600 road-related deaths. Only three were caused by cyclists.