6. March 2012
In this year of political positioning it seems to be very popular to decry regulation as onerous and unnecessary. I believe that there is a race to the bottom in this particular subject and those that profess this course of action just don’t accept the facts. Those who believe that the free market will take care of all things through its own built-in mechanisms should look at an example of smart regulation that affects each of us every day.
In the March 12, 2012 issue of Time magazine there appeared an article titled “Safer Passage.” The gist of the article was primarily to show that traffic deaths have fallen to all-time record lows. The lead of that article stated that, “America’s roadways are safer than ever. The latest data show that traffic fatalities are at the lowest level since 1949 and that the death rate based on miles traveled is the lowest in history.” Now, this great achievement didn’t happen by accident and it sure didn’t happen because free market forces were solely at work.
The article had a graphic that indicated the major milestones from 1952 to the present day that lead to achieving the lowest death rate in history. As I scanned the list there was a definite mix of private industry innovation, such as the Daimler-Benz 1952 patent for the crumple zone to absorb collision energy or the patent for the child safety seat in 1962, and government regulation, such as the federal legislation that cars be outfitted with seat belts in 1967 and the regulation for the requirement for energy absorbing steering columns in 1968.
I must admit that I am old enough to remember the debate back then as to whether the auto industry could survive if it were forced to install seat belts in every car. So I went to the archives of the New York Times to see if my memory was correct. I found an article dated April 26, 1966 which reported on the auto industry “abandoning its fight against any Federal standards.” The article went on to say the auto industry requested that if standards were to be introduced that the feds be directed to “collaborate with state motor vehicle authorities in an effort to achieve a consensus that will result in Federal and state standards being as uniform and complementary as practicable.”
Industry working together with regulatory bodies to set a minimum level of safety seems to have been the optimum and maybe the only way to achieve the goal of reducing needless death. Private industry could invent the seat belt but could not enforce its use, however, the government could. I know that I am treading on the libertarian view that government should not force an individual to wear a seat belt but I will reserve that discussion for another blog post.
By the way, there is a third element to this reduced death achievement and that is us, John Q. Public. When people get passionate about a problem they typically form together and search for ways to find a solution. An example in this case is the formation of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). These folks are passionate about finding ways to bring information to the general public about the danger of driving while intoxicated and advocating for regulations to punish those that do.
I think this example has shown that when you put all three of these approaches to work you can achieve some fantastic results. When you get into your car today you can feel assured that you are far less likely to die in a traffic accident than you were in 1950, even with all of the additional people on the road. A success that we should replicate in many other areas.