I'm about to start one of my "Economics for Managers(.pdf)" courses, and in an early lecture on consumer theory I explain incentives (and therefore rational-choice theory) by looking at seatbelt laws. It's a striking example, and the empirical validation is based on the work of John Adams. I've touched upon the idea previously (see e.g. this post on shock absorbant lamposts), but it's fairly self-evident that:
When driving conditions become more dangerous, we modify our behaviour and use more caution
The "seatbelt example" simply looks at this in the opposite direction, i.e.
When driving conditions become less dangerous, we modify our behaviour and use less caution
Evidently the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is not impressed with such basic behavioural ideas, finding the suggestion that we drive more recklessly if we feel safer to be abhorent. They conclude(.pdf):
“Don’t believe them, not until they produce credible evidence that people compensate for safety”
Well, John Adams has responded:
I first produced evidence on the subject sufficiently credible to pass peer review for publication in the Society of Automotive Engineers Transactions in 1982 - “The Efficacy of Seat Belt Legislation” (PDF: 0.2MB). I have revisited the evidence that people monitor their environments for signs of safety or danger, and adjust their behaviour in response to perceived changes, in numerous publications since, including two books: Risk and Freedom: the record of road safety regulation (1985) and Risk (1995).
He also points out that the position is now conventional wisdom, with "shared space" becoming more and more common. Remember, if the logic behind compulsory seatbelt laws is valid, we should also encourage drink driving.
If I put a dagger on your steering wheel, would you slow down?
If I removed it, would you speed up?
If you're putting in a new CD, will you wait until the road is clear, or until you're going round a bend?