Law of Unintended Consequences Strikes Again

I forget which Chicago-school economist it was (probably it was Sam Peltzman) who once suggested that the most effective way to cut down on automobile accidents would be to place a sharp, eight-inch knife on the steering wheel of every car.  Instead, we got mandates for seat belts and air bags.  Peltzman’s research showed that in the early years people with seat belts suffered fewer injuries in accidents, but . . . they caused more accidents.  (Ditto for the early years of air bags.)  The point was simple: by reducing the perceived risk of accidents, many people drove more recklessly, even if unconsciously.  Hence the knife-on-the-steering-wheel idea: raise the obvious risk perception of accidents, and people will be much more careful behind the wheel.

Seat belts and air bags make perfect sense once their installation is universal; in other words, the asymmetries Peltzman noted were transitory.  The same cannot be said for the government’s latest auto safety idea: red light cameras.  Even the federal government has noted that red light cameras are increasing accidents, especially rear-end collisions.  As James Hemphill summarizes the problem at RedAlertPolitics.com:

A comprehensive report conducted by the Federal Highway Administration found that the presence of red light cameras at traffic intersections increased the likelihood of rear-end crashes by 14.9 percent and the number of injuries in traffic intersections by 24 percent. Red light cameras also do little to prevent “T-bone” accidents, where the side of one vehicle is impacted by the front or rear of another vehicle, as those accidents often occur when the driver is not paying attention, and not simply disregarding a red light.

I’m sure if we put TSA in charge of the problem it will get better.

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