February 29, 2004

Safety is not the only thing

Patrick Crozier | Best of Transport Blog | General Points (not just transport) | Road Safety

Jeremy Clarkson gets wound up by the EU’s regulations on car design, all made in the name of safety. The Association of British Drivers gets wound up by speed cameras, again made in the name of safety. And I get wound up because I don’t think they are making the case properly.

Actually, it’s worse than that. I don’t think they are making the case at all.

Let me explain. Last week I walked into a shop in Twickenham’s high street and bought myself a throw and two cushions. I could have spent that money on health insurance but I didn’t. Why not? Because aesthetics matter. They matter to me. Do the test for yourself. How much do you spend on clothes, CDs, pictures and soft furnishings? How much extra do you spend on cars, houses and stereos in order to get a better looking one? Plenty, I should think. Why? Because aesthetics matter. Because they matter to you. Remember, you could have spent that money on health insurance or a safer car/house/stereo. But you didn't. Why not? Because the marginal aesthetic benefit was more important to you than the marginal benefit to your health or personal safety.

And that’s the point. Safety is not the only thing. It’s one thing. It’s an important thing for sure. But it’s not the only thing in life.

Let me give another example, a bit closer to home. What do you do when you get in a car? OK, you may not be doing this consciously but what you are effectively doing is saying that the benefit of getting to your destination outweighs the possible cost of losing your life on the way. Same goes for driving over the speed limit. Why? Because to you it is worth it to get to your destination that bit quicker, or maybe, you enjoy the thrill. But at the root of all this behaviour is the fact that safety is not the only thing. If it was we wouldn’t have roads at all.

Trackbacks

"Aesthetics matter"
Patrick Crozier, basically talking about safety, tangents interestingly into aesthetics, here. … Last week I walked into a shop in
Brian's Culture Blog on March 2, 2004

"Aesthetics matter"
Patrick Crozier, basically talking about safety, tangents interestingly into aesthetics, here. … Last week I walked into a shop in
Brian's Culture Blog on October 7, 2004

Comments

You are quite right as long as the safety/aesthetic trade off only effects your own safety. Your argument is spot on for measures such as seat belts and restrictive legislation about the interior layout of a vehicle.

When we're talking about safety regulations that increase protection of third parties from your actions then the case is much, much weaker.

As you say, it might be "worth it to get to your destination that bit quicker, or maybe, you enjoy the thrill". But that self indulgence kills a 1000 people every year in the UK and leaves many more hospitalised. As the casulties are likely to be third parties not the thrill seeker with the throttle, any libertarian justification for a 'right to speed' looks a bit thin.

As to the external design of cars, in an ideal world we could all drive whatever we choose. But in that same world, anyone who killed or injured because they failed to take into account their scyth-like bonnet would be suitably punished.

Today, of course, we are wedded to the idea that on the road (as opposed to railways etc), 'accidents happen'. Kill a cyclist and you're likely to get 6 points and be fined less than the cost of the bike.

In this environment the blunt instruments of speed and external design regulation are all we have.

Posted by Not Responding on February 29, 2004
When we're talking about safety regulations that increase protection of third parties from your actions then the case is much, much weaker.

Not really.

That problem can be dealt with by tort law: I crash my car into yours, you then sue me for damages. The possibility of having to pay damages provides some deterrent against taking risks. Or, if I buy liability insurance in anticipation of such an event, I would then find the safety rules imposed on me by the insurance company.

If damages for tortious killing were set to the revealed-preference value of a life, and the law were changed so that inchoate tort claims were treated as transferable property, then tort law should work even in cases where the victim has been killed and, under the present system, no-one can sue.

State regulation isn't as necessary as you might think.

Posted by Andy Wood on February 29, 2004

"But that self indulgence kills a 1000 people every year in the UK and leaves many more hospitalised. As the casulties are likely to be third parties not the thrill seeker with the throttle,"

Any stats on this?

Posted by Patrick Crozier on February 29, 2004

Andy

Could you explain to those ignorant souls amongst us who haven't read Hayek and Hoppe the meaning of terms like "revealed-preference value" and "inchoate tort claims".

Incidentally, I think Not Responding is more concerned with accidents where it is the victim who is at fault.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on February 29, 2004

Law's Order by David Friedman is the book you want to read. (You really, really must read that book, Patrick. The whole book is webbed here. I've only read one of Hayek's books - The Road to Serfdom, and I've never read Hoppe.)

Revealed-preference value of a life: Suppose I have two ways of earning a living - driving trucks of sand or driving trucks of dynamite. Both jobs are identical, except that I have a 1% chance of being killed if my truck of dynamite blows up; trucks of sand don't blow up. The total pay I'd get from driving trucks of dynamite is £10,000 greater than from driving trucks of sand.

If I take the job driving trucks of dynamite, I'm giving up 1% of my life (statistically speaking) in exchange for a 99% chance of £10,000. Thus, my actions reveal that I value my life at less than £990,000.

Inchoate tort claim: a claim for damages for a tort which might happen some time in the future.

If they were transferable property and, say, the average damages for tortious killing was £1 million and I had a 1% chance of being tortiously killed, then I could sell my inchoate tort claim for up to £10,000 to my insurance company. In the event of my being killed, the insurance company sues and receives any damages.

Does that clear things up?

Posted by Andy Wood on February 29, 2004

There are basically two principles of effective safety management - safe plant and safe person. Unfortunately this is very much a case of the former. The nanny state prefers safe plant and ignores the benefits of improving peoples' skills and sense of responsibility by applying the safe person approach.

Redesigning vehicles to be less injurious in the event of an incident makes no attempt to prevent the incident in the first place.

Posted by Mark Ellott on March 1, 2004

Of course 'aestheitics' matter. However what is negated is the value of 'time'. So, it is 'aesthetic' to stand around in bars drinking and fagging, but it has a health cost accumalated at a later date. A health cost that often isn't recognised until it's too late, that is until the health effects are more immediately felt. And then it's too late.

Posted by ander on March 1, 2004

The view that 1/3 of road casulties are speed related comes from TRL;

"Marie Taylor, head of TRL’s programme of research on speed and accidents, has commented on the erroneous interpretation of TRL323. She points out that in addition to speed being recorded as a factor, it will have been ‘part of the reason for other factors being recorded’ such as failure to judge another’s path or speed. It will compound factors such as following too close and aggressive driving. Finally, she notes that excessive speed was recorded as a factor in more than a third of the fatal crashes recorded and that the contribution from other speed-related factors ‘will mean that the true effect of speed is likely to be even greater'" ( from http://www.pacts.org.uk/policy/briefings/speedcamerabriefing.pdf)

In response to the revealed-value theory, how much does the theory suggest a speed lover need to be insured for to cover killing my 5 year old daughter? What's her revealed value?

Posted by Not Responding on March 2, 2004

There is no "revealed-value theory". The theory is neo-classical economics. One of its postulates is that people's preferences are revealed by their actions.

The point of using tort law is that damage payments provide an incentive to take precautions, thereby reducing the number of accidents.

I've read that the typical American is estimated to value his own life in the range of $1-10 million. Civil damages of $1 million would be considerably harsher than the present criminal punishment for most deaths caused in road accidents. With liability insurance for such damages, it's quite possible that an insurance company's regulations will be even stricter than the state's.

Do you have a specific objection to this?

Posted by Andy Wood on March 2, 2004

That, surely is the crux of the matter which seems to be consistently ignored. Vehicle design, speed reduction measures and traffic calming do not change the root cause of accidents - bad driving, which may include inappropriate use of speed. The root cause is not machinery or speed, it is people. Changes, therefore, should be targeted at changing behaviour so that the accident doesn't happen, not try to mitigate it after it has. Substantial use of civil law would be a step in that direction.

Posted by Mark Ellott on March 2, 2004

I have no idea what the accident stats actually are, but I have the subjective impression from living in Germany for five years that drivers here are generally much better than in the UK. One reason for this, I believe, is the no-speed-limit autobahns where people get used to the idea of having to make their own judgements about responsiblity and their car-handling abilities instead of having nanny tell them what to do.

Driving at 130 and having to think about backing off/covering the brakes if somebody pullled out half a mile ahead was certainly good for my general habits of anticipation on the road. And I suspect for those who like driving fast, having the autobahn as an outlet may reduce the urge to do it in other places where it might be far more dangerous.

Posted by Alan Little on March 2, 2004

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