Saturday, April 3, 2010

The finite value of human life

According to a recent paper by Lee S. Friedman, Donald Hedeker, and Elihu D. Richter, the lifting of the federal 55 mph speed limit in 1995 was responsible for 12,545 deaths between 1995 and 2005. That’s about 45 percent more American fatalities than we have suffered in 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan put together. And all those human tragedies are due not to weighty national security imperatives but to the fact that we all want to go just a little bit faster. ...

None of the papers I’ve seen have calculated the economic benefits we derive from going faster, in large part because they vary so widely. (Benefit of high speed limit to driver on lonely rural highway: potentially large. Benefit to driver on congested urban freeway: zero).

But nevertheless the benefits are there. If cancer researchers can save a few minutes a day on their commutes, some of that time will go to finding a cure for a dreaded disease.

Plus, going faster is fun. I admit I like it, and I don’t even like driving. ...

Is the trade-off of safety for speed worth it? This may be more of a question for a philosophy professor than a transportation scholar. ...

Even though partisans on either side of the political spectrum sometimes take the position that every human life is priceless and cannot be sacrificed no matter what the circumstances (the left wants to abolish the death penalty; the right wants to abolish abortion), politicians of all stripes make decisions that take human life all the time, often with little scrutiny. The issues surrounding automobility are an important example.
--Eric Morris, Freakonomics, on how we make trade-offs with human life every day

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