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The Peltzmann effect

Unintended consequences.

In the 1960s, numerous countries (including the United States) began adopting laws that mandated the use of seat belts. The hope was that this would reduce mortality in motor accidents.

However, economist Gordon Tullock once quipped that “if the government wanted people to drive safely, they’d mandate a spike in the middle of each steering wheel.” Why would that be? Because of how we respond to risks. If we know that even the slightest accident might impale us on our driving wheel, we would all drive more safely. While it is a strange thought experiment, we can run it in reverse. If one driver knows that all the other drivers are wearing a seat belt while he also wears a seat belt, that driver faces a lower risk level. As a result, feeling safer, that driver acts more recklessly. He exceeds the speed limit, accelerates at a yellow light etc. This greater recklessness, in turn, increases the risks of an accident.

As a result, there is an ambiguous effect from the regulation. On the one hand, the law reduces risks but it also induces a behavioral response that increases the likelihood of an accident happening. Thus, we must wonder which effect dominates the other.

The same logic applies to face masks. Imagine a fictitious Canadian economist who, fearing the risk of bringing the virus to a loved one or catching the virus himself, avoids situations that would be too risky for his tastes. He avoids going to the coffee shop for a latte and limits himself only to doing groceries. With everyone being forced to wear a mask, he may decide to go pick up that latte. Technically, the activities of shopping for coffee and groceries are individually less risky with mandatory face masks. However, that fictitious economist now exposes himself to two activities that carry a risk rather than a single activity and so he faces a higher likelihood of catching the disease. Just as with seat belts, we must ask which effect dominates: the risk reduction of masks or the behavioral response?

In the end, the answer is an empirical one. Yet, the case of seat belt laws suggests that the precise answer might be elusive. The first paper of importance on the effect of seat belts was published in the 1970s by Sam Peltzman who found that the behavioral response by American drivers completely washed out the effects of the law. Since then, numerous papers on the topic have been published. Some confirm the findings of Peltzman while others infirm them. All these studies confirm that there is some offsetting behavior. They simply cannot agree on how strong it is.

However, let us take one important fact in consideration: the first laws mandating seat belt use were adopted in the 1960s. This is more than fifty years ago. Yet, there is still a discussion among experts who try to design the most convincing statistical tests. If there is uncertainty about the past, how can experts today be certain that compelling the use of face masks will not result in a greater level of risk taking? What if the offsetting behavior is stronger? Experts and policy-makers probably do not know this information (and I believe that they cannot reasonably be expected to know this). As the damages from faster propagation are exponential (given the nature of the virus), there is a real risk of backfire!

The question of whether or not seat belts, motorcycle helmets, masks, suits of medieval armor, etc save lives might be a fascinating one. It’s probably worth the ongoing research it inspires, I suppose. Ultimately, though, it’s the wrong question. What any and all Americans SHOULD be asking themselves, and constantly, is this: in a supposedly “free” country, with a government whose reach and scope is confined within very explicit limits set by the US Constitution, are ANY such mandates in accordance with those limits? Or do they so flagrantly breach them as to do far greater harm to the Constitution’s continued authority and relevance, thereby harming the nation entire?

Tragically, most of us long ago forgot about just how important that question really is, and no longer care anyway. If they think about them at all, they consider such notions quaint, antiquated, and hopelessly silly—the exclusive province of cranks and fools who are completely out of touch with reality, too thick to really comprehend what government’s true purpose is: to solve every problem, grant every wish, scratch every itch, safeguard every life, and abolish all risk, forever.

16 thoughts on “The Peltzmann effect

  1. The consequences are EXACTLY as intended. You need to remember that “Law Enforcement” are employed to do THREE things:

    1. Protect their Masters (look no further than cities which defund their police to prove this – they ALWAYS provide “security guards” for their officials).
    2. Protect their bruthas and sistas in Blue.
    3. Generate revenue.

    Seat belt laws fulfill that third job function!!!

    1. It once provided revenue but I bet almost everybody just wears the seatbelt now.
      It does serve to remind people Who’s in Charge Here though.

  2. What would happen if you sneezed with a tight mask on?
    I think it highly likely most people would be disgusted and remove the mask to do a little ‘cleanup’. Probably get stuff all over their hands and more. Then they’ll touch the counter or a pack of chips they might like then put it down thinking about their ‘diet’. Etc etc. Meanwhile perhaps they even put the mask down.

    I see people all the time doing silly things. Phone rings. Take off the mask and start talking.

    Face it. The Masks are largely a placebo of a placebo disease and a form of Submission and a tool to keep us all afraid of the Boogeyman Virus from China is here, there and everywhere.

    I still don’t know anyone who knows anyone who has/had it.

  3. Too many words. I could sum that whole article up in one sentence just after reading this paragraph:

    In the 1960s, numerous countries (including the United States) began adopting laws that mandated the use of seat belts. The hope was that this would reduce mortality in motor accidents.

    Hope in one hand, shit in the other, squeeze and see which one comes true.

    Amazing how every liberal initiative boils down to that.

    1. Even you are too verbose, Ironbear.

      The hope was that this would reduce mortality in motor accidents.

      The correct, American answer: Mind your own goddamned business.

      Whether I wear a seatbelt or a motorcycle helmet is between me, my insurance company, and my family.

      If the tyrants claim the right to tell people to wear seatbelts for their own good, then I claim the right to tell people to get rid of their televisions and game systems for their own good. If it’s for some nebulous societal good then I claim the right to tell people to live in apartments or houses at no more than 300 square feet per person.

      1. While I agree, the difference has always been the public road. You don’t have to wear a seatbelt, helmet, or knickers on your private road.

        1. Barry, the seatbelt ONLY protects you. The helmet ONLY protects you.
          If I get in an accident with someone not wearing a seatbelt, well tough if they crash through the windshield.
          It’s their choice.
          Frankly, I protect myself because I am not the quickest of reflex. I bet you were. My Dad was, perhaps not any longer, but he might still be quicker than me.

          You know that game where you place your palms face down and the opponent face up and the opponent tries to “flip” his palms and smack the back of your hands? I lost to my brother and my father every time and it wasn’t even close. 100% they got me and 0% I ever got them.

          Try it with your son sometime. See how your reflexes still are. ;>D

          1. One of the things I maintain are reasonably good reflexes and speed. It’s required for driving at high speeds in traffic all trying to cross a line first 🙂

            Just luck. Nothing that I do.

  4. Ooh, that’s even better. If you claim that I can’t exercise a natural right of travel without submitting to arbitrary rules, then you have no grounds to defend any rights that you care about. Freedom of assembly? Only if the government allows it and the regulations, fees, and penalties are set at their convenience and may change at any time. Right to bear arms? Only after you perform expensive and time-consuming training and obtain a an expensive permit which may be denied for any reason and you agree to store all of your firearms in a vault at the police station.

    EDIT: Dang it, threading got lost for whatever reason. This was supposed to be a reply to Barry.

    1. I am making no such claim. I think you should be free to wear a seatbelt or not as you see fit. I highly recommend them. I’ve tested them on several occasions, a couple of times at speed in excess of 100mph (on the track). I have sustained the black bruising defining the precise location of the webbing that held me in place. No survival otherwise. Same for helmets. However, that is a decision for you to make as far as I’m concerned.

      I am making the distinction that you are using a public accommodation and that is the argument some make that defines the difference. Doesn’t mean I agree with it.

      The other argument I have seen made, everyone’s insurance costs will be much higher as a result of the deaths and injuries sustained by those not wearing seatbelts. As far as I’m concerned freedom has a high price.

      1. No need to take it personally.* “If you claim” was the general “you” not the “you, that guy in NC”. (English could use the equivalent of the German “man”. “You” and “one” each fails to cut it.)

        everyone’s insurance costs will be much higher as a result of the deaths and injuries sustained by those not wearing seatbelts

        Did rates universally go down in states with mandatory seatbelt laws? Not that I noticed or have been informed.

        * I was going to give you a link to some site where you could have a good flame war if you /did/ want to take it personally because I don’t have time this evening, but searching on “best place to have an internet flame war” and such gave me nothing useful. The internet has failed me! The only thing that could make the day worse would be a Rule 34 failure. Please, please tell me there’s a porn of trying to find a place to have a flame war!

        1. I wasn’t taking it personally. Just clearing up what I think since I often write in short sentence with little explanation. I suppose I read “you” as me, but I didn’t take that in any disrespectful manner.

          “Did rates universally go down in states with mandatory seatbelt laws?”

          I’m pretty sure some study purporting to show the difference was done years ago. But bafflegab studies did not start recently. I don’t think it can be proven since it is universal.

          1. A seatbelt is a good idea.
            If people choose to ignore it what difference does it make if people hurt themselves?

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