04 August 2010

Minimum federal ricketyness standards?

There's a well-known effect in economics/psychology called risk compensation, whereby people tend to adjust their behavior in response to perceived changes in risk.

Consequently, the life-saving effect of the introduction of some safety devices (especially very visible or easily perceived ones, e.g. anti-lock brakes, bike helmets) is somewhat less than the "true" effect of the device, because people compensate for increased safety by engaging in more risky behavior (e.g. driving faster, descending faster around blind corners).

The flip side is that if we just make certain behaviors appear more risky, then people will do less of them (irrespective of the actual amount of risk they are subjecting themselves to). Should the federal government mandate that automobiles feel more rickety at high speeds? These mandates could be encoded as limits on how good the shock absorbers or window seals are allowed to be. (I am pretty sure I drive more slowly in older cars, especially if it sounds like there are gale-force winds outside and it feels like pieces of the car are going to fall off.)

On the face of it, this seems like a silly idea. Which is why it's so unsettling, to me, to confront the possibility that, because risk compensation partially neuters the effect of real safety devices, that this just might actually be an effective (and cost-effective) way of saving lives.

Disclaimer: It's not clear what the socially optimal amount of speeding is, and whether it is more or less than the status quo (and therefore, whether such measures are even desirable from an economic standpoint). It's not clear how much utility people directly derive from a smooth ride and the feeling of security. It's not clear to what extent people would become acclimated to such tricks and resume their fast-driving ways. It's not clear whether you can effectively limit the subjective feeling of safety by regulating a small number of objectively measurable parameters of a car's design. In any case, clearly Phil forgot to take his medication this morning.

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