Why some safety regulations make for worse drivers

Do we need a law requiring winter tires?

Why some safety regulations make for worse drivers

Tom Hanson/CP

Most people will agree winter tires seem like a good idea. Then again, so does flossing, eating bran cereal and taking the stairs. But no one expects government to mandate any of those activities. Do we need a law requiring winter tires?

In a country as familiar with the perils of winter driving as Canada, mandatory winter tires have become a perennial point for debate. In 2008, Quebec became the first, and so far only, province to demand winter tires from December to March, on pain of a $300 fine. In November, Saskatchewan’s minister for government insurance categorically rejected the idea, which pops up in most provinces on a regular basis and undoubtedly will continue to do so. Tire manufacturers tend to be eager supporters, for obvious reasons, while the Canadian Automobile Association opposes a law on cost grounds. Last year, however, the CAA joined with the Rubber Association of Canada in demanding Ontario subsidize winter tires. The province declined.

Despite universal agreement that winter tires improve stopping distances on snow and ice, this issue is complicated by more than mere physics.

In 2011, Quebec released a study on the first two years of its tire law and declared the policy a resounding success. According to provincial figures, serious winter accidents per year have decreased 36 per cent as compared to the five years prior to the law. Yet the statistics may not be as robust as they first appear. Serious accidents have been falling significantly across Quebec throughout all seasons, regardless of tires installed. Correcting for secular trends, the decline in major accidents attributable to winter tires is no more than three per cent.

Of course, a certain risk-averse component of society—those who also advocate mandatory helmets for skiers and life jackets for boaters—will claim even a single accident avoided is reason enough to demand winter tires on all vehicles. Certainly families of victims may feel this way. But we should never lose sight of the trade-offs involved, or the impact of creeping government diktat over what should properly be personal decisions. If forcing everyone to buy a $1,000 set of winter tires helps avoid a few accidents, why not mandate four-wheel drive as well? This also improves traction in slippery conditions.

And there is plenty of evidence suggesting safety laws of this kind do more harm than good. Driving conditions may worsen in the winter, but driving habits also change. As of early January, Quebec’s rosy winter driving record appears to be slipping. Fatal car accidents are up significantly compared to the year previous, 23 to nine. While this may be a mere blip in the data, or be weather related, it could also point to the phenomenon of risk compensation: when an activity is made safer, many people respond over time by acting in a more reckless manner.

While airbags, anti-lock brakes and winter tires are often considered helpful, passive safety features, they can actually play an active role in affecting driver behaviour. A government report from Finland found drivers equipped with winter tires drove faster than those without. A Norwegian academic study found drivers drove more aggressively and used their seat belts less in cars with anti-lock brakes. Virginia investigators also concluded “airbag-equipped cars tend to be driven more aggressively . . . and increase the risk of death for others.” Similar results have been observed with environmental improvements such as better traffic lighting and wider roads. (A 2010 Swedish study also found use of studded winter tires, which Quebec allows, significantly increases particulate matter in the atmosphere, leading to a variety of environmental problems.)

Human beings reveal a frustrating tendency toward risk compensation in all types of activity: better parachute rip cords lead to parachutists taking greater risks, flood prevention efforts lead to bigger houses on flood plains with inevitable results, medical breakthroughs in HIV prevention lead to more and riskier sex. Gerald Wilde, professor emeritus of psychology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., is internationally recognized for his work in risk compensation. “I see no reason why mandatory use of winter tires should make any appreciable dent in the accident rate,” he says. To permanently improve road safety Wilde recommends making people want to be safer through positive incentives—reducing licence fees for accident-free drivers, for example—rather than forcing them to buy new equipment.

As for Quebec’s observed decline in winter accidents since 2008, Wilde suspects it has more to do with the province’s high unemployment rate than its tire laws. Economic downturns reduce the total amount of driving, particularly among high-risk young males, and thus significantly decrease accidents. Nothing is so bad that it isn’t good for something, even a recession.

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