The Cirrus aircraft is loaded with advanced safety features lacking in older "legacy" aircraft. Yet, the Cirrus safety record appears to be no better — and perhaps even worse — than that of the legacy fleet. How can this be?
I’ve written before that "risk homeostasis" may be one factor at work. I suggested here and here that pilots might tend to use the advanced features of the aircraft to fly into more challenging conditions than they otherwise would. While using the features in that fashion might increase the utility of the aircraft, it necessarily undercuts many of the features’ safety benefits.
It turns out that that three human factors experts have published a short article (see below) on risk
homeostasis theory as it applies to technologically advanced aircraft. I discussed the article recently with one of the authors, Steven Meyers. I came away convinced that the theory deserves more attention than it has to date received.
Meyer’s article explains risk homeostasis as follows:
If people assess the level of risk associated with a particular activity to be greater than the acceptable level, they tend to exercise greater levels of caution. . . The opposite is also true: If they assess the level of risk to be lower than their acceptable level, they tend to engage in actions that increase their level of risk taking.
What follows is that, when provided with a safer airplane, a pilot may simply chose to "push harder."
If the level of risk for a particular activity is somehow reduced, [the participant] may react by increased risk-taking to return himself to an "acceptable level".
Risk homeostasis theory explains why pilots who are experienced in legacy aircraft wouldn’t be any safer when they fly the Cirrus.
But what about the cadre of new pilots who were drawn to aviation by the Cirrus’ safety features? By standing on the sidelines until the safety features were introduced, those pilots demonstrated that the Cirrus provides the highest level of risk that they are willing to accept. Risk homeostasis theory wouldn’t suggest they would engage in riskier behavior because of the plane’s novel safety features. Therefore, one might expect that their safety record would be better than that of equally experienced pilots flying legacy aircraft.
Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case. That means other factors must also be at work.Pilot Error and Technically Advanced Aircraft