Risk homeostasis, or why big accidents make for bad law

Inevitably, in the wake of the very sad death of Natasha Richardson, Quebec is toying with the possibility of a mandatory helmet law for all skiers; in the meantime, there are anecdotal reports about increased helmet use at Tremblant already.

There are some obvious questions to ask here about proper risk assessment, along with a legitimate debate about the balance of personal freedom and corporate liability. But I also wonder if, beyond this, a helmet law might be counterproductive.

Queen’s psych prof Gerald Wilde popularized the notion of “risk homeostasis,” the idea that everyone has his or her own fixed level of acceptable risk. When the level of risk in one part of your life goes up, you compensate in other areas by engaging in more risky behaviour. So the idea is this: downhill skiing is largely a form of thrill-seeking, with the degree of thrill determined by how much you push your risk envelope. Putting a helmet on merely expands the size of the envelope, so in order to achieve the same thrill level with a helmet on, you need to ski faster, more recklessly, on steeper pistes, and so on.

Most significantly, it seems to me that back-country skiing has killed far more people this year in Canada than routine downhilling. If a helmet law pushes a significant number of people off the safety of Tremblant and into the dangers of back-country, it might end up leading to more deaths and injuries.

I have no data at hand on this. Thoughts?

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