31
Jan
10

Laws and risk aversion

Today we discover that some well-intended laws, designed to reduce dangerous behaviour by curtailing the use of certain tools, are shockingly ineffective:

Yeah, cellphones.  What tools did you think I meant?

Comparing insurance claims for crash damage in 4 US jurisdictions before and after such bans, The Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) researchers find claim rates are comparable with nearby jurisdictions without such bans.

“The laws aren’t reducing crashes, even though we know that such laws have reduced hand-held phone use, and several studies have established that phoning while driving increases crash risk,” says Adrian Lund, president of HLDI.

The HLDI compared collisions of 100 insured vehicles per year in New York, Washington D.C., Connecticut, and California — all states with currently enacted roadway text bans.

Despite those laws, monthly fluctuations in crash rates didn’t change after bans were enacted, all though there were less people using devices while driving.

(The article clocks in with five single-sentence paragraphs in a row.  Is IBT British?)

So we have the following seemingly-counterintuitive result:

  1. Cellphone use while driving is correlated with more crashes.
  2. Laws have been passed banning cellphone use while driving.
  3. Cellphone use while driving has decreased after these laws have been passed, but
  4. Crash rates remain essentially unchanged.

I have a pair of hypotheses for why this is happening.  First, I imagine that the people who quit using their cellphones whilst driving were already fairly cautious, and weren’t the ones doing the crashing in the first place.  It’s the reckless drivers, who figure that they’re capable of safely driving with a cellphone (twenty klicks over the speed limit, six beers in, without signaling their turns or wearing their seatbelts), who ignore the laws and keep fucking up.  Those are the people targeted by the laws, but they’re also the ones least likely to pay the laws any mind.  (Other examples of such laws will no doubt occur to you.)

My second, Eric Crampton-inspired hypothesis, is that many drivers feel safer now that “those reckless cellphone-using drivers” have been legislated away, and are willing to take more risks to compensate.  For example, Vancouver has banned cellphone (handset) use while driving since the beginning of the year: every cab driver I’ve seen since carries a Bluetooth earpiece, and spends twenty nerve-wracking seconds fishing it out, putting it on, and fiddling with the handset to make it work when s/h/it receives an incoming call.  Are these folks being “safer” while fucking around in the centre console?  Not in the slightest — they are, however, in reasonable compliance with the law.

Well-intentioned legislators are urged (with little expectation of success) to take note.

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2 Responses to “Laws and risk aversion”


  1. February 1, 2010 at 19:14

    Have you read Daniel Pink’s “Drive”? Interesting book on how things like punishments and rewards often have unintended consequences completely in opposition to their expected and desired effects.


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