Safe Cars, Dangerous Roads
By Walter E. Block
I just bought a new 2023 Toyota Camry. I’m still trying to figure out how to get some music on Bluetooth (I’m accustomed to use disks in my old car, but there’s no such availability in new automobiles), but the safety features are really something worth writing home about.
Seat belt wise, this vehicle is a real nanny. It won’t shut up until I buckle up; in contrast, my fifteen-year old ex-car would stop ringing after a minute or two. Other oldies but goodies include airbags, antilock brakes, traction control, electronic stability control, tire-pressure monitors, telematics (GPS).
Impressive as this list is, it is just the tip of the iceberg. If I drift into an adjacent lane without signaling to do so, it pipes up. If I’m about to hit anything in front of me it screeches at me like a banshee with loud beeps. Moreover, the cruise control system is manna from heaven, If the vehicle in front of me slows down, so do I, automatically. My car even allows me to set up my choice of cruise control distances from the vehicle in front of me. There is also a camera that pops up when I’m in reverse gear. I’ll never again back up into anything.
With all of this new safety equipment, not only in 2023 autos, but for the last half decade or so, not just for Toyotas but for pretty much everything else on the road, you would think that the highway fatality rate would have taken a deep plunge. If you thought that, you thought wrong.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the death knell on the roads for the last decade is as follows (per 100,000 of population):
2013: 32,893 (10.40)
2014: 32,744 (10.28)
2015: 35,485 (11.06)
2016: 37,806 (11.59)
2017: 37,473 (11.40)
2018: 36,835 (11.18)
2019: 36,355 (10.99)
2020: 38,824 (11.67)
2021: 42,915 (12.89)
What in bloody blue blazes is going on here? What is going on here is the fact that while car manufacturers are improving matters, highway management is asleep at the wheel. Why? The former are part and parcel of the private sector, while the latter is in the bureaucratic hands of the government.
Why should this make any difference? This is because if a private company does not satisfy customers, it loses money. If it does mend the error of its ways, bankruptcy beckons, leaving its more efficient competitors to carry on.
Needless to say, nothing like this profit and loss system functions in the so-called public sector. If anything, the very opposite occurs. The squeaky wheel gets the grease: the most inefficient bureaus typically get additional funding.
Some commentators blame covid for the recent upsurge in highway fatalities: fewer people drive, the roads are emptier, they can go faster, and speed is dangerous. No, no, no. That, even if true, is only a proximate cause of this sad phenomenon. The real underlying basic explanation is that the NHTSA, the group in charge of the nation’s thoroughfares, cannot plan its way out of the proverbial paper bag. It suffers no financial or any other type of loss whatsoever whenever yet another American bites the dust on any of its domains.
This organization monopolistically imposes one set of rules on an entire country. But these rules of the road do not come down from high, engraved on stone tablets. They are concocted by a bunch of bureaucrats, sitting pretty in Washington D.C., with no skin in the game. That is, they lose not a penny when innocent people perish on their roadways.
How might a corporate road industry improve matters? Each one would institute different rules and then we could see which ones save more lives! For example, the present system imposes a minimum speed of 40mph and a maximum of 70. Would it improve matters to require everyone to drive in the right lane at exactly 55 miles per hour, 65 in the middle lane, and 75 in the left-hand lane? How’s about, instead, 60, 70 and 80? The point is, we simply do not know!
Here’s another possibility that a road entrepreneur might institute: a large fine for driving at 65 miles per hour in the left lane. This undoubtedly leads to lane changing, which in and of itself is dangerous. Yes, there are at present “keep right” laws for slower traffic, but when’s the last time anyone was ticketed for such anti-social behavior. Would this work? Again, we simply do not know. That’s no way to run a railroad. Imagine if other sectors of the economy were unable to benefit from allowing numerous solutions to problems. The result would be chaos. Well, that pretty accurately describes the present situation.
But are not private roads the ravings of a madman? Are not highways a “market failure” a “public good” which can only be supplied by the all-loving state? Not a bit of it. The first roads during Revolutionary times in the 18th century were privately owned turnpikes. There are other “long, thin things” such as railroads, that are owned and managed by private entrepreneurs. There is no reason whatsoever that privatization could not be applied in this instance. Or are we satisfied with our present horrendous fatality rate?
Walter E. Block is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans, and author of Block, Walter E. 2009. The Privatization of Roads and Highways: Auburn, AL: The Mises Institute;
safety features of cars: https://www.google.com/search?q=safety+attributes+of+new+cars%3F&rlz=1C1CHBF_enUS963US963&oq=safety+attributes+of+new+cars%3F&aqs=chrome..69i57j33i160l4j33i299l3.12676j0j15&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
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