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Reason Foundation

Trusting technology, trusting people

Ted Balaker
June 1, 2004, 11:10am

A reader points to a very interesting article about America and highway safety. It tells the tale of Ralph Nader precursor, William Haddon, and his belief in the passive approach to safety: The orthodoxy of [the 1950s] held that safety was about reducing accidents--educating drivers, training them, making them slow down. To Haddon, this approach made no sense. His goal was to reduce the injuries that accidents caused. In particular, he did not believe in safety measures that depended on changing the behavior of the driver, since he considered the driver unreliable, hard to educate, and prone to error. Haddon believed the best safety measures were passive. Haddon wanted changes in auto design such as steering columns that–instead of impaling the driver–collapse inward on impact: There is no question that the improvements in auto design which Haddon and his disciples pushed for saved countless lives. They changed the way cars were built, and put safety on the national agenda. What they did not do, however, is make American highways the safest in the world. In fact--and this is the puzzling thing about the Haddon crusade--the opposite happened. United States auto-fatality rates were the lowest in the world before Haddon came along. But, since the late nineteen-seventies, just as the original set of N.H.T.S.A. safety standards were having their biggest impact, America's safety record has fallen to eleventh place. But the passive approach has strong intuitive appeal. After all, if you're interested in preventing typhoid, it's easier to put chlorine in the water than to convince people to boil their water. But even pithy analogies have their limitations, and in this case it's straightforward: There isn't any chlorine for traffic crashes. The piece goes on to explain how other nations implemented mandatory seat belt laws, and the U.S. eventually started to do the same. Higher seat belt use followed the new laws. The piece explains how safety pushers like Nader hailed government regulations, but still remained puzzled about some things: He couldn't believe the strides that had been made against drunk driving. "You've got to hand it to MADD. It took me by surprise. The drunk-driving culture is deeply embedded. I thought it was too ingrained." And then there was what had happened with seat belts. "Use rates are up sharply," he said. "They're a lot higher than I thought they would be. I thought it would be very hard to hit fifty per cent. The most unlikely people now buckle up." He shook his head, marvelling. He had always been a belt user, and recommends belts to others, but who knew they would catch on? Other safety activists, who had seen what had happened to driver behavior in Europe and Australia in the seventies, weren't so surprised, of course. But Nader was never the kind of activist who had great faith in the people whose lives he was trying to protect. He and the other Haddonites were sworn to a theory that said that the way to prevent typhoid is to chlorinate the water, even though there are clearly instances where chlorine will not do the trick. This is the blindness of ideology. It is what happens when public policy is conducted by those who cannot conceive that human beings will do willingly what is in their own interest. Whether you regard it as noble or not, that paternalistic streak is common among safety pushers.

Ted Balaker is Producer


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