Think of a trapeze artist, suggests Adams, or a rock climber, motorcyclist or college kid on a hot date. Add some safety equipment to the equation — a net, rope, helmet or a condom respectively — and the person may try maneuvers that he or she would otherwise consider foolish. In the case of seat belts, instead of a simple, straightforward reduction in deaths, the end result is actually a more complicated redistribution of risk and fatalities. For the sake of argument, offers Adams, imagine how it might affect the behavior of drivers if a sharp stake were mounted in the middle of the steering wheel? Or if the bumper were packed with explosives. Perverse, yes, but it certainly provides a vivid example of how a perception of risk could modify behavior.
Perverse... and awesome. Picture a whole bizarro world full of safety devices like this! How exciting life would be, even as all you were doing was being really, really careful. For a movie that proceeds on this theory of producing excitement, watch "Wages of Fear":
In a squalid South American oil town, four desperate men sign on for a suicide mission to drive trucks loaded with nitroglycerin over a treacherous mountain route. As they ferry their explosive cargo to a faraway oil fire, each bump and jolt tests their courage, their friendship, and their nerves.
ADDED: Funny typo in the original title to this post: "steering whee." Indeed. What a thrill!
AND: There's a drunk driver I used to know who argued -- vociferously! -- that drunk drivers drive more safely than sober drivers. As long as they aren't so drunk that they've forgotten they are drunk, they are motivated to drive super-safely because they know they have impaired reflexes and they know they are in big trouble if they are stopped by the police.