Mastromarco & Runkel examine data for the period 1950 to 2005. They say that at the end of this period “one in every 300 accidents is serious or fatal, compared with one in every 10 accidents in the 1950s and 1960s”. Between 1970 and 1989 they found that 24 drivers lost their lives whereas between 1990 and 2005 only two drivers were killed. They found that an additional fatal accident increases the expected number of rule changes by 20%. Crucially, they found that “safety regulations have a positive impact on competitive balance”.
That is not to say that all rule changes unambiguously increase driver safety. Since its recent revamp, the Financial Times has devoted its back page to sport. Last Monday the FT published a wonderful piece on the impact of the Drag Reduction System (DRS) introduced to F1 in 2011 (here). The DRS allows drivers to adjust the angle of their rear wing. John Burn-Murdoch and Gavin Jackson show that since the introduction of the DRS the amount of overtaking has increased dramatically. It would be fair to say that overtaking is not exactly a risk-free manoeuvre. However, it is probably fair to say that it has rarely been safer.