Thursday, November 12, 2009

Football helmets and unintended consequences

Economists have long recognized that when some activity is made safer by improved equipment, people compensate with more risky behavior. For example, making cars safer lets people take more risks behind the wheel. People respond to incentives. The phenomenon of moral hazard is another example of how a reduction in risk changes behavior.

An article in The Wall Street Journal asks if football helmets have made football more dangerous. That possibility seems counter-intuitive to noneconomists who usually do not consider that changes in risk will change in behavior.
Andrew McIntosh, a researcher at Australia's University of New South Wales who analyzed videotape, says there may be a greater prevalence of head injuries in the American game because the players hit each other with forces up to 100% greater. "If they didn't have helmets on, they wouldn't do that," he says. "They know they'd injure themselves."
"Without the helmet, they wouldn't hit their head in stupid plays," says P. David Halstead, technical director for the Nocsae, the group that sets helmet-safety standards. But without helmets, the game "wouldn't be football," he says.

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