Auto Safety Backfires at NASCAR, Says Professor

May 11, 2007

A West Virginia University professor who examined 21 years of NASCAR accident reports and made a comparison to introductions of safety requirements, has concluded that more safety regulations in the popular sport has led to an increase in accidents.

In the summer issue of the Southern Economic Journal, Russell S. Sobel, professor in WVU’s College of Business and Economics and his then graduate student Todd M. Nesbit write: “When safety regulation makes automobiles safer, drivers may drive more recklessly, partially or completely offsetting effects on the overall level of safety.”

Sobel had been interested in exploring whether improved safety in automobiles would be offset by safety incentives and if such improvements would result in drivers exercising less caution because they would perceive a diminished risk of injury.

Sobel found that gathering the data was difficult, especially for the street cars driven by most Americans. Because of variations in road conditions, laws and weather factors accident rates across the nation are hard to compare between regions. But many of these conditions are controlled in NASCAR races, making the sport a perfect subject for the study.

“We are essentially able to test how the same drivers, on the same tracks and in the same weather conditions, alter their behavior in response to changes in automobile safety,” Sobel said.

In their paper titled Automobile Safety Regulation and the Incentive to Drive Recklessly: Evidence from NASCAR, Sobel and Nesbit – now an assistant professor at Penn State Erie, the Behrend College – claim that moves to create even safer race cars will cut down on injuries, but will actually increase accidents.

The study is especially pertinent since NASCAR began rolling out the safer “Cars of Tomorrow” in 2005.

“I’d call this a win-win situation,” Sobel said. “It’s well known that NASCAR fans like to see the excitement of an accident. So, with safer cars, drivers will take more risks, and they will have more accidents. But the safety measures will cause the number of injuries to decrease.”

Sobel said the study shows what he calls an “offsetting behavior” – drivers drive more recklessly in response to increased safety of their automobiles. However, total injuries will decrease because this effect is not large enough to completely offset the impact of increased automobile safety.

Sobel suspects the effect of increased safety leading to more recklessness probably applies to other sports – better helmets in football and bicycling and better gloves in boxing for example – and possibly to average motorists.

“Obviously NASCAR drivers are different from regular motorists. On the other hand ask yourself this question: Would you drive more carefully if your car was less safe, say it had no seatbelts and a dagger protruding toward your heart from the steering wheel?” he asked.

Sobel conjectures that fewer drivers would tailgate other cars under this scenario. If this is true, then drivers are already responding to safety improvements in passenger cars by driving more recklessly.

Sobel is known for his economic studies of public policy, especially his work on Federal Emergency Management Agency reform, policies to promote entrepreneurship, and tax policy. He recently edited a book entitled Unleashing Capitalism: Why Prosperity Stops at the West Virginia Border and How to Fix It, which calls for greater reliance on free-market capitalism to address West Virginia’s lagging economy.

Sources: WVU College of Business and Economics

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