January 12th, 2006

Mechanical

Why You Willingly Accept the Deaths of Innocent People

Despite the provocative title, this post is not political. Further, despite your political affiliation, the title "Why You Willingly Accept the Deaths of Innocent People" is perfectly accurate.

Most of you have cars. Most of you drive cars at times that you don't need to. Even I, who drives far less than most people, am guilty of this; I like the convenience. However, every time we hop in our car, we accept the fact that there is a non-zero chance that someone will die as a result.

Economists have long known that there's a simple way of eliminating vehicular-related deaths: eliminate vehicles. Of course, this trades some deaths for other deaths. If all vehicles were eliminated tomorrow, the economy would be destroyed, people would starve, critical medical supplies wouldn't be transported, people injured in accidents couldn't get to hospitals in time, etc. However, even if you cite this as a reason we still need cars, you probably hop in your car to drive to a restaurant, a beach retreat, visiting friends, etc. These are all "optional" trips (though still important to the economy) which significantly increase the chances that innocent people will be killed. Though we rarely think about this explicitly, we silently accept these deaths as the price we pay for this convenience.

Estimates of automobile fatalities in the USA vary between 30,000 and 40,000 deaths per year. This is a hard number to judge as this probably doesn't count pollution-related deaths or injuries which kill people much later, but let's settle on the 40,000 number for a moment.

The automobile industry is offering more and more life-saving features in their cars. Anti-lock brakes, seat belts, and airbags only touch the surface (incidentally, SUVs have been found to be more dangerous than most vehicles because of the increased odds of the other driver dying -- minivans are much safer). However, manufacturers are working on new lifesaving technologies. Imagine that your car warns you when you're traveling too close to someone. Your car won't start if you're intoxicated. Some cars beep if they think you're nodding off. New technologies are even being invented which can detect if your car veers outside of the lines.

Now imagine that 10 years from now we have a host of lifesaving devices and automobile related deaths are cut in half (unlike victims, I suppose). Instead of 40,000 deaths, we'll have 20,000. Typically we blame drivers for automobile deaths, but when cars take over more responsibility, problems will happen. Imagine you're tailgating and your car applies the break and someone behind you hits you, causing an accident. Imagine that you're swerving outside of the lines to avoid a pedestrian and your car tries to correct. Imagine that the ABS fails and you, not knowing how pump your brakes, hits the car in front of you. Imagine that you swerve outside the lines and your car doesn't correct or beep and warn you. In short, there are tons of ways in which fail-safe devices can fail.

That's the problem. The manufacturers won't be able to think of every contingency and all software has bugs. So by making a car much safer and reducing deaths, all of a sudden people who have lost family members will be more likely to blame the car's manufacturer than drivers. Unless we can figure out a way to handle this appropriately, there could be many, many lawsuits. As a result, automobile manufacturers will be put in a curious situation. If the lawsuits stemming from their life-saving devices are too expensive, it might be better for them to remove the devices, despite knowing that more people will die. But then they'll get sued by people whose cars don't have the devices. Maybe it's better to not add too many safety devices in the first place?

Think this is far-fetched? It's already happening.

It is clear that airbags save lives. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, airbags have saved 6,856 American lives. However, over the last 10 years, airbags have also killed 175 people.

Lawyers for the families of those injured or killed point to numerous confidential settlements reached between automakers and plaintiffs. They claim these settlements prove that automakers know airbags are defective.

The more safety devices there are the more lawsuits there will be no matter how many lives are saved.