It’s a fascinating theory that may seem esoteric at first but actually has widespread consequences to our safety and even public health if true.
In short, The Peltzman Effect hypothesizes that people react to public safety regulations by increasing other risky behaviors, therefore offsetting any intended benefits of the regulation – or even leaving them worse off.
If that doesn't click immediately, think of it with one of the best current examples that have reignited a debate over the Peltzman Effect: NFL helmets and player safety. In particular, studies show that concussions and major head injuries are up in the NFL, even with the advances in helmet technology that should be keeping them safer.
Why? If the Peltzman Effect stands true, it’s because players know that they’re more protected in the new helmets so they’ve altered their tacking and hitting form, essentially using the new helmets as weapons – something they never would do in past generations because of the imminent harm it would cause them. So the helmets got safer, and the players counteracted that benefit by changing their behaviors with riskier tackling.
This theory was born in 1975, named after Dr. Sam Peltzman, an esteemed professor of economics at the University of Chicago Business School. He originated this theory based on research of traffic laws and accident data, but other economists later expanded his work to encompass unintended consequences of public safety regulations.
While hard to prove causation and not just correlation, The Peltzman Effect gained attention over the decades in the media and among academic and public health circles, particularly when seatbelts became mandatory in the front seat of cars, childproof innovations around the home, and with new advances in technology and automation in aviation.
Though not without controversy and criticism, it continues to garner acceptance. Recently, ABC’s 20/20 featured a program titled, “The Surprising Risk of Playing It Safe” that outlined to viewers how "people adjust their behavior in a way that counteracts the intended safety effect."
As a healthcare professional, what do you think about The Peltzman Effect and its possible ramifications on chiropractor and our patients’ safety?