The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership
Volume 19, Number 6
Timothy D. Terrell
Recently, the South Carolina state government inflicted a two-part highway safety campaign upon all its citizens. First, our all-wise protectors went after those of us who decided not to use a seat belt. After a media blitz involving expensive (and taxpayer funded) TV and radio ads, the "Click It or Ticket" operation commenced. Police set up over twenty-five hundred checkpoints throughout the state, through which hundreds of thousands of drivers passed during the two-week campaign. Halfway through the campaign, South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon declared it illegal.
Tickets for violating a seat belt law may only be issued if the driver is stopped for some other reason, according to the law, and a roadblock for the express purpose of checking seat belt use is not permissible, Condon argued.
While the campaign was still going on, the South Carolina Department of Transportation director announced she was lowering speed limits on 130 miles of South Carolina interstate highways. Part of the route I take to work each day has dropped from a 65 mph speed limit to 60 mph. Why don't I feel safer?
Part of the reason seat belt laws and speed limits bother me is that they extend a tentacle of government into automobile safety issues-- yet another place it does not belong. Not only are such laws immoral, but they set a precedent for even more intrusive regulations. Next thing I know, the Food and Drink Police will be snatching candy bars from my hand and replacing them with rice cakes.
But even the most utilitarian pragmatist would be concerned by another consequence: Highway safety laws can end more lives than they save. It is easiest to understand why this is so if we look at speed limit laws. One reason is that lowering speed limits on freeways reduces the advantage to using these limited-access divided highways. Some drivers will switch to alternative routes--using secondary roads--that might be a shorter distance but previously were avoided because of significantly lower speed limits. These alternative routes are frequently much less safe than freeways, so overall fatality rates can rise as a result of lowering speed limits.
The evidence is strongly in favor of raising speed limits, or dropping them altogether. Many Americans are aware that the German autobahns have no speed limits in certain sections, and that their overall fatality and accident rates are lower than in the United States. Available data in the United States also make it clear that statutory speed limits are unsafe.
From 1974 to 1995, the United States was subject to the National Maximum Speed Limit, a source of tremendous frustration for drivers. It is impossible to know how many lives the repeal of the national speed limit has saved, but Montana's experience suggests that it is a significant number. In 1996, after the national speed limit was repealed, the State of Montana reverted to the pre-1974 "reasonable and prudent" standard. The enforcement of this standard translated into a daytime limit of 80- 90 mph.
Government safety regulators, who apparently suffer from the delusion that only their laws keep drivers from behaving recklessly, might have been surprised at the result. As Chad Dornsife of the National Motorists Association reported, traffic deaths did not increase, in spite of a significant increase in traffic volume in subsequent years. In fact, the frequency of multiple vehicle accidents dropped slightly. People did not turn the highways into racetracks--average traffic speeds did not change greatly and were often lower than other states-- heavily traveled urban freeways.
What happened in 1999 makes the point even more clear. In December 1998, following a challenge to a ticket, the Montana Supreme Court declared the "reasonable and prudent" standard unconstitutional. For the next five months, there was essentially no daytime speed limit in Montana. The fatal accident rate promptly dropped to a record low. On Memorial Day weekend 1999, statutory numerical speed limits were reinstated-- and the incidence of fatal accidents began to rise again.
The case against seat belt laws is tougher to make on pragmatic grounds, but it is still sound. First, people respond to any added safety in their cars by taking added risks while driving. Reduced safety means people take fewer risks. To see this, imagine that we pass a law requiring the removal of all seat belts and air bags and the placement of a steak knife in the center of the steering wheel, pointed at the driver's chest. Needless to say, people would not be driving 75 mph on the freeway in downtown Atlanta. Probably the average speed would be more on the order of 5 or 10 mph. So the net gain from safety laws is not easy to find.
Second, each use of a seat belt requires a tiny cost in terms of time and loss of comfort and mobility. Some people choose not to accept that cost for the same reason that most of us do not strap on a crash helmet before driving our cars. Everyone makes safety tradeoffs in some way because everyone implicitly recognizes that there are other things to enjoy besides safety.
I drive an inexpensive mid-sized car rather than a larger, safer SUV because I prefer to have a three-bedroom house and spend a little more in restaurants. A free market economy is founded upon the principle that the individual is in the best position to assess his own risk tolerance and make decisions about personal costs and benefits. Generally, a distant bureaucrat will not have the same concern for my overall well-being that I have.
I shouldn't be surprised at the results of highway safety laws; the bureaucrats who build and manage our highways do not have an incentive to make efficient decisions about safety and speed limits. Maddening traffic jams and senselessly low speed limits are part of the same general phenomenon that causes long lines at the Post Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles. The magnitude of the resource waste is staggering.
One way to understand the waste is by looking at the foregone alternatives to enforcing petty safety laws--what economists call opportunity cost. If those officers were not manning roadblocks to check for seat belts and drivers' licenses, what crimes could they have prevented? How many burglaries, rapes, and murders occurred while these officers were otherwise occupied?
Police officers charged with enforcing the law naturally are going to guard their own personal interests. As economists have pointed out for centuries, seeking personal gain can produce a social gain. However, absent a connection between their productivity for society and their compensation, law enforcement officers are unlikely to have an "identity of interests" between their own good and the good of society. They are likely to use any available discretion on their part to go after those offenses for which enforcement produces the maximum prestige and rewards to them with a minimum of personal risk.
As with any political operation, this means that priorities are skewed and resources are misallocated. The law enforcer's priorities are not likely to be those offenses that do the most social damage. So instead of hoofing it through a crime-ridden rest stop on the interstate in the wee hours of the morning, officers set up a roadblock to address petty "safety" offenses while running a near-zero risk of getting assaulted. Why? There's evidently a failure to sufficiently link nabbing a dangerous criminal with a high personal reward to the officer who puts the cuffs on him. So officers prefer to avoid dangerous situations, even if the gain to property rights--respecting people would be enormous.
A solution to traffic safety problems would begin with abolishing speed limits and seat belt laws, and culminate in the privatization of roads. Traffic safety, however, is only a single pixel in a large picture of the evil consequences of government regulation. It is becoming increasingly clear that when government attempts to guard our safety, it is likely to result in more human death and suffering.
Timothy D. Terrell (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches economics at Wofford College and serves as adjunct scholar at the Mises Institute. Readings: Walter Block, "Free Market Transportation: Denationalizing the Roads," Journal of Libertarian Studies 3:209-38, and "Road Socialism," International Journal of Value-Based Management 9:195- 207; and Eric Peters, "The Dangers of Government Safety,"The Free Market (February 1997).