NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Why Some Safety Measures Don't Work

September 3, 1999

The average American implicitly values his own life at about $5 million, say economists, suggesting we might be willing to spend a great deal for safety. However, technologies and regulations designed to reduce risks may be ineffective, achieve a minor effect at a very great cost or even be counterproductive. For example,

  • "Childproof" caps to prevent accidental poisonings have resulted in no net saving of lives, says Harvard Law School professor W. Kip Viscusi, because parents often leave the hard-to-open caps off and are less vigilant due to a false sense of security, and many young children can open them anyway.
  • Anti-lock braking systems (ABS) on cars reduce some kinds of accidents, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but ABS-equipped cars have higher rates of other accidents, resulting in no overall net benefit.
  • Since 1987, all states have raised the drinking age to 21, but severe drunkenness has gone up, says Indiana University's Ruth C. Engs, and among under-21-year-old college students who drink, 32 percent drink heavily, compared to 24 percent of students 21 years old and above.

Although the overall effect of ABS is nil, three out of five new cars have it, adding $500 or more to the car's cost. Since individual driving behavior may determine its effectiveness, ABS may be worth the cost. Safety regulations sometimes save a statistical life for less, but sometimes the costs are enormous -- for example, formaldehyde abatement in the workplace costs over $115 billion per life saved.

And sometimes risk-reduction measures increase risks due to compensating behavior. For example, sunblocking lotions reduce exposure to cancer-causing UV radiation. But they can also instill a false sense of security -- encouraging users to spend even more time in the sun.

Source: Philip E. Ross, "Safety May Be Hazardous to Your Health," Forbes, September 6, 1999.


Browse more articles on Government Issues