Friday, December 31, 2010

Regulatory Stupidity (or, "Is it any wonder this country is going bankrupt?")

U.S. to Require Rear-View Video on Cars

WASHINGTON—The Obama administration moved Friday to effectively require all passenger cars and buses to be equipped with rear-view video cameras to help prevent fatalities caused when drivers back over a child hidden in the blind spot behind a vehicle.

The technology, already offered in some models in the U.S., involves a small camera attached to the back of a car that sends a live video feed to a display mounted in the dashboard or rear-view mirror. It is designed to give drivers a broader view as they back out of a parking spot or driveway.


Such technology currently boosts the price of a car by as much as $200. But administration officials said the added cost is justified because the technology could potentially halve the number of deaths and injuries each year attributed to "back over" crashes, currently at about 207 and 15,446, respectively. Such crashes disproportionately affect children and elderly people.


The rule could cost the auto industry between $1.9 billion and $2.7 billion a year, according to regulators' estimates, unless auto makers can pass along the expense to consumers. But the industry is reluctant to vigorously oppose a proposal to prevent deadly accidents involving children...

I really have to laugh at that last part. First of all, why on earth would automakers not pass the cost along? Secondly, who are they kidding with this bit about the industry being "reluctant" to oppose the proposal? Obviously no one, including the auto industry, is in favor of children dying. But what should also be obvious is that the auto industry has no need to object to this regulation at all, because they know full well it will simply be one more profit-enhancing techie gizmo tacked onto each car.

That, however, is a side issue. The real issue is that nobody involved in this has had the guts to ask if the cost involved is actually worth it. No, I am not kidding.

You have to actually do the math to see what I mean. Let's start with the cost figure quoted above, of $200 per vehicle. Multiply that by 16 million, which is a conservative estimate of how many new cars are sold in America each year. That will give you the total cost of the regulation, for all cars produced in one year. The number of deaths per year was most recently 207, as quoted above. However, the Obama administration also points out that these cameras are only expected to reduce the number of deaths by half. That means to get the cost per person saved, we have to divide by 103.5, not 207. What does all of that come to? Rounding to the nearest million, it comes to $31 million for each person whose life may be saved by this regulation. Thirty-one million dollars per person, and it's not even expected to save them all. Furthermore, looking at the total cost for all lives saved, we see that it's roughly $3.2 billion. Should the nation be expected to pay $3.2 billion to save the lives of 103 people?

Is it any wonder this nation is going bankrupt?

Of course we all want to object that no cost can be assigned to a human life, but allow me to point out that this belief, as much as we need it, is precisely the problem. Just because human life has incalculable value in human terms doesn't change the reality that when something happens in the real world, and we elect to do something about it, it's going to cost real money. That money is not just going to appear magically, out of nowhere. Somebody has to come up with it, which means something else comes up short. And when the cost is mandated by law, as it is here, people are going to be paying for it whether they want to or not, and whether it's of any benefit to them or not.

It is therefore necessary to stop and ask ourselves, how much money are we actually willing to spend to save the life of a person? How much money are we willing to spend to save the lives of 103 people? Another way of looking at it might be to consider what other things might be accomplished with that money, in the absence of this regulation. What productive things can be done with 3.2 billion dollars? Yes, saving 103 lives is a productive use, but the ugly truth is that it's not very productive, is it?

The unwillingness of politicians and the electorate to wrestle with these admittedly painful questions may represent a fundamental weakness of republican government. I don't know. Offhand, I can't envision any realistic scenario whereby politicians would suddenly become willing to confront this sort of issue. But that doesn't mean issues like this are going to go away. They're going to keep coming, and we are going to keep paying for them until when, exactly?

What makes this question particularly difficult in this case is that a majority of those injured or killed in these accidents are children. Anyone who dares to challenge the regulation risks having the opposition stand up and say, "This person is in favor of children dying." That, of course, is bullshit. Nobody is in favor of children dying. However, acknowledging the fact that the death of children is a horrible thing, are we willing to spend $31 million per child to prevent it? That is an awful lot of money--enough to justify asking, for instance, where are the parents of these kids who get run over? Aren't parents supposed to watch out for stuff like that? I understand it's impossible to keep one eyeball on a kid at all times, but Jesus H. Baldheaded Christ, why should the rest of us pony up thirty-one million dollars just to help you out?

Note: I am all in favor of automakers offering these cameras as an option on their vehicles. That way people who are clearly at higher risk of this sort of accident (i.e. parents) can incur the appropriate cost, if they choose, to lessen the chance of it happening. Hell, I'd even be in favor of making the things tax deductible, if they're not already. What I have a problem with, obviously, is requiring them on every single car, which is just plain stupid, is a clear example of legislative overstepping, and is precisely the sort of pathetic, ultimately worse-than-useless political grandstanding that leads most of us to despise politics. (And that, in turn, makes it all the more likely that this sort of crap will never end.)

Note 2: Yes, I know my math ignores the injured people. I thought about this for a while and couldn't figure a reasonable way to allow for it. "Injuries" is extremely vague, and could include anything from a cut requiring stitches to full-on, almost-fatal intensive care treatment. Furthermore, I realized that even if I did figure out the math, it was probably irrelevant anyway. The total cost would still be $3.2 billion per year, forcibly taken out of the pockets of Americans, the vast majority of whom have no need for this feature at all.

[1/5/2011] Decided to address the issue described in the second note. Update located here.



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