The first time I heard about the move to make rear view cameras on cars mandatory, I was teaching an Intro Stats class at Cornell in September 2005.
Let me tell you, that was a tough semester to teach Economics and Statistics.
In the aftermath of Katrina, all rationality about Statistics was out the window. Everyone around me seemed to take it for granted that one could blame what happened in New Orleans on Global Warming whereas to me the culprit was clear: Years and years of government subsidization of housing in all the wrong places to bolster locally entrenched politicians, followed with a perfect confluence of ineptitude and a culture of
looking out for number one entrenched in all levels of local government. I had spent a week in New Orleans for a conference in 1996 and vowed never to come back to a place where I constantly felt like the water was going to come rushing down on us over the top of the levees.
If you remember, there was also a run up in gasoline prices during that time. The rules of demand and supply, the standard market reaction to a negative supply shock were out the window. No, that was the time where people with Ph.D.s and their lemmings kept repeating the mantra Bush had let New Orleans drown because of his hatred of black people, oil men in the administration were running up the gas prices on purpose, and that me being able to fly at a moment's notice to my father's funeral was responsible for the effects of the hurricane.
One of my favorite routines at the beginning of class was to take a news story from either the campus paper, or one of the local Ithaca papers, and rip apart the reasoning step-by-step. For one lecture, I noticed a story that gave a sob story about some grandma who had driven with her Suburban over little Joey playing in the driveway or some such thing. A sad event that could have been easily prevented by teaching little Joey not to play in the driveway or teaching grandma not to get in the car without making sure little Joey is not in the driveway, or, preferably both.
What was the proposed solution in the newspaper article? Make rear cameras mandatory on all cars.
One of the most important factors in evaluating whether requiring everyone to pay for a rear camera on their car is to ascertain what the benefit would be. The benefit is almost always cited in expected lives saved. The problem is, the analyses tend to ignore the human factor in the situation: Putting a rear camera on a car does not change the kind of grandma who'd drive over little Joey playing in the driveway. It also does not change the parents who let little Joey play in the driveway. It also does not change the little Joey who has been taught
it's OK, go play in the driveway, in the middle of the street, just don't interfere with my Oprah!
A rear camera also provides absolutely no benefit in many situations. For example, in a full supermarket parking lot, coming out from between two cars seems to be increasingly fraught with peril these days because of parents who let their children run up and down the length of the aisle. How many camera/driver combinations will be able to detect little Suzie, all of three and a half feet tall, when she darts out from your left, from behind the car next to you?
So, what do I see today? A story in the New York Times: U.S. Rule Set for Cameras at Cars' Rear.
First, if you are against rear cameras on cars, you must be for killing children:
On average, two children die and about 50 are injured every week when someone accidentally backs over them in a vehicle …
Second, you can't object to this new mandate because there are already a whole bunch of them. And, one was mandated by a Republican:
Cars are filled with safety features that have been mandated by government regulators over the years, including air bags and the Liddy Light, the third brake light named for Elizabeth Dole, who made it standard as secretary of transportation in the 1980s.
Third, let's pretend the cost doesn't matter, but the benefit is huge:
… regulators predicted that adding the cameras and viewing screens will cost the auto industry as much as $2.7 billion a year, or $160 to $200 a vehicle.
Of course, the relevant measure of cost is not per vehicle. What matters is the answer to the question
how much does it cost to save a life?
But regulators say that 95 to 112 deaths and as many as 8,374 injuries could be avoided each year by eliminating the wide blind spot behind a vehicle.
Hmmm, what is the cost per life saved? What is the cost per injury prevented? They don't mention it. It is also weird that they give a range for deaths avoided by a single number, a very precise one at that, for injuries avoided. For meaningful numbers, we'd need the full report, but National Highway Transportation Safety Administration News page or any other section immediately accessible from the sites front page mentions a report on rear cameras.
Let's pull more at our heartstrings even more, shall we?
But in terms of emotional tragedy, backover deaths are some of the worst imaginable. When you have a parent that kills a child in an incident that’s utterly avoidable, they don’t ever forget it.
No, the really sad part is, to a casual, rational observer, most of these tragedies seem to be avoidable solely by the people involved acting differently rather than the government mandating one more thing!
… backovers are the most common cause of off-road deaths involving children and vehicles …
In many cases, the incidents involve a phenomenon that safety advocates call "bye-bye syndrome," when a child runs outside to wave to someone driving away, without that person's knowledge.
The solution is completely internalized here: If you're worried about this sort of thing, you can specifically shop for cars with cameras. Life's about trade-offs. If you choose to buy the car without the camera, then you make damn sure your kid knows not to run behind your car when it's moving. Come to think of it, how old are these kids anyway? Are you leaving them with no supervision when you drive away?
Along the way, your kids may also learn such useful life skills as NOT running into traffic while texting, NOT going down the wrong way in a one-way street on a bicycle without a helmet while listening to deafening music using earphones.
And, sometimes, despite all the best intentions, and all the precautions, accidents will happen. People will be hurt, they will die of one thing or another.
Mandating every single bit of behavior in the name of improving safety will take the pleasure out of living.