The Need for Speed and the Value of Human Life
Last week following the Republican debate, Erik and many others decried the way Perry’s supporters yeehaw-ed Texas executions. This lead to a discussion by people on both sides of the aisle as to who it was that valued human life more: Pro-Life (in terms of the abortion debate) advocates, or Anti-Death Penalty advocates. (Because in our oddly bi-chromatic world of political tribalism, those for the death penalty are usually against abortion and vise versa.) A tangential question discussed was which group was actually the one being consistent with their views as regards to valuing human life.
I’d like to explore this question from the angle of my chosen career, because one of the things risk management cynically teaches you is that none of us value human life the way we like to think we do, and our lack of consistency on the subject is pretty universal.
Before I even start, I’d like to do everything I can to take as much of the Us vs. Them bile out of the reader’s potential reaction as possible. To that end, I want to make it clear that in this post I am neither advocating for abortion or the death penalty, nor am I advocating eliminating either. Similarly, when I speak of potential government oversight and regulation I am neither advocating for or against.
That being said…
The reality of how much we value human life is quite different from the narrative we tell ourselves. It is true that for our loved ones, acquaintances or even those we that we admire from afar– people with whom we have or believe we have a connection – that value is very high. In addition to those folks, there are also groups of people that we may not know at all, but who as a group act for us as a symbol of life. For some, this might be young men going off to battle; for others, an innocent man on death row; for others still, an unborn child. These groups act as a kind of marker that works to remind us that we value human life as being sacred; we also use these markers to help us identify those that in our minds don’t. They can become, if you will, our tribe’s totem of life.
But how valuable is human life, really, to most of us?
I’d like to take a moment to share with you two separate technologies that have been developed over the past decade or so that your auto insurer would really, really like to make mandatory for all new cars sold in the United States. In fact, they will even be willing to greatly if not entirely subsidize all of the cost through subsequent premium reductions. What are they?
The first has come to be known as a Black Box. Like the one in an airplane, this records exactly what you were doing – and what you were doing wrong – in the event of a crash. But it can be used much more extensively. The biggest usage for Black Boxes currently is employers with large vehicle fleets, who use them as an oversight tool to monitor the driving habits of employees while on the job. They automatically report to an employer if a vehicle of theirs has been speeding, making illegal turns, driving recklessly, or almost any unsafe driving practice. (And yes, the technology even exists to run company cell phones through the company car, so that your employer will know if you’ve been driving while texting.) Your insurer would love to have it be mandatory that these black boxes report information to them, even when you have not been in an accident.
The second is a built-in car Breathalyzer. With this device, you would not be able to start your car without first proving to it that you were under the legal level of intoxication. They have been in the news as a potential tool for chronic DIO offenders, but there is no reason everyone can’t use them.
Why would insurance companies add these to our cars if they could? Like any decision an insurance company makes, it’s all about money. And despite what you might think, the big money loser for auto insurers isn’t replacing and repairing vehicles, it’s death and bodily injury claims. And there are a lot of these deaths every year, almost every singe one of them due to drivers that are to one degree or another breaking the law while driving.
In 2008, there were over 30,000 automobile accident related deaths in this country, the lowest in many years. (By the way, this statistic includes neither fatalities caused by drivers or passengers of either motorcycles or heavy commercial hauling trucks.) The most recent year that we have reliable alcohol-related deaths is 2007. In that year, the total number killed was over 15,000; in most years it is right around 50% of all auto related deaths. Almost half of those deaths are people that were not the drunk driver; almost 20% of all that are killed are children.
Actuaries that we work with believe that implementing mandatory Black Box data sharing for insurers would allow them to negatively incentivize speeding, red light and stop sign running, texting while driving, and most of other causes of traffic fatalities by 60% – and that’s their conservative estimate. (They have achieved similar results with employer fleets.) Since the average motor vehicle death rate over the past ten years is over 37 thousand deaths a year, that’s almost a quarter million people saved over that same period of time. And mandatory car Breathalyzers would theoretically have even greater success over time, as the percentage of autos you could not drive while intoxicated increases.
Wow! So now we have a way to save almost 8 times the number of people who died on 9/11 every year, and the insurance industry is willing – Hell, wanting – to do back-end subsidizing though premium reductions to make sure that we can afford it. So why aren’t they pushing harder than they are to make these things mandatory?
Because they know they don’t have a chance in Hades of Americans agreeing to do it. Why won’t we agree? The answer’s not so simple.
The reasons that people give for their strong opposition varies depending on the measure. Most people say they don’t want the government to make mandatory black boxes because of government overreach issues. However, when asked instead are they are OK with insurance companies making them mandatory for coverage independent of government, they overwhelmingly demand government intervention protect them from corporate greed. Built-in breathalyzers are entirely private, and don’t lead to any financial penalty at all – in fact, there is no need to make them so that they report any data to anyone at all – but are objected to for being inconvenient. Outside the actual car but still related, people initially say that they object to automatic radar guns and stoplight cameras because they aren’t accurate. When shown statistics proving the high degree of accuracy, they then say it is improper method of municipality financing.
The percentages of people that object to each of the above is pretty much equal (around 85%) and are generally made by the exact same people. In fact, a carrier that we work with did a private study that asked people who objected to the above measures a 5-layer series of questions. Essentially, the first question asked why they objected, and the four subsequent questions were a matrix that essentially asked, “If we can solve that issue by X, would it be OK then?” They found that could never get to a yes.
So while it can’t be proven, there is compelling evidence that people’s real objection is that they want to be able to speed, accelerate to run the initial change of yellow to red, and drive home after they have had more drinks than the law says they are allowed to have and still get behind the wheel. And they want to do so without paying fines or additional insurance premium.
By the way, these numbers do not change if the respondents are made aware of and agree with the data about the number of lives that would be saved.
So when I go to work, one of the things I am periodically reminded of is that when we are given the choice between being able to speed down the freeway after having had one-too-many or save the lives of a quarter million people a decade, it’s a no brainier for us. Really, we don’t even hesitate. Oklahoma vs. Hawaii in Norman isn’t as much of a lock.
I suspect this is because – for most of us – the nameless, faceless people who are the victims of those who drive illegally and/or drunk aren’t part of our totem of life. In fact, the majority of the 15% that say they do support those measures insurance companies want us to adopt cite – you guessed it – the loss of a loved one by vehicular accident as their primary reason.
Again, I do not bring any of this up to advocate for or against these measures. But I think it is worth keeping in mind, especially during those times when we are trying to decide who loves human life the most based on political litmus-type issues.