In most preventable deaths worldwide, I'm guessing lifesaving measures would probably cost under $100,000 per person, and probably much less for children. But instead of going after the low-hanging fruit, we prefer to find the most expensive ways to save lives. The worst example of this phenomenon is no doubt the War on Terror, which, if you count Iraq*, must have cost at least a trillion dollars by now and has caused far more deaths from terrorism than it has saved (mostly in Iraq).
* (I realize Iraq was not part of the war on terror if we are to be honest, but without the War on Terror the Bush Administration would not have been able to convince the media and the public that we needed a war, so it deserves at least some of the blame... but if my reasoning is in error, simply think about the cost of the TSA instead of Iraq.)
So it's irritating every time the media reports a story about a program that would cost a lot of money to save a few lives, without giving any hint as to how much value we would be getting for our money, and it's irritating everytime lawmakers pass a law without any real cost/benefit analysis. I heard that airbags cost $1000 per car (or was that per bag?), that the number of lives they save is apparently minimal among those like me that already use seatbelts, and that airbags can actually cause injuries and deaths of young children. But that didn't stop the Canadian government from mandating them on all new cars, which of course cost me money personally when I bought a car.
So now U.S. government regulators want to mandate rear-facing cameras in all new cars to reduce injuries and deaths from cars going backwards. The article I saw about this, like virtually every article from the mainstream media, didn't translate the numbers into a form I could immediately understand.
So here are the numbers. The estimated cost of the rule change is $2.7 billion per year or $160-$200 per vehicle, a cost that will surely be passed onto the buyers. And "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".
First of all, when I read that I am immediately curious whether the text actually means what it says: is 8,374 (A) the number of injuries that would be prevented per year, or is it actually (B) the total number of injuries? Although "as many as 8,374 injuries could be avoided" sure sounds like (A), I have seen so many news articles carelessly misrepresent statistics that I'm sure the true meaning could easy be (B), because when it comes to numbers, I have developed a sense that reporters are very, very lazy people. Yes, perhaps this particular reporter is good with numbers, but I have no way to know that.
If the meaning is actually (B), the actual number of injuries prevented might just be half of 8,374, or so, since not all drivers will become much safer just because they have a camera in addition to the three mirrors and rear window they already have. Likewise I am automatically led to wonder where number $160-$200 came from: is that cost distributed among all vehicles that don't already have a rear camera? Or is it distributed among all vehicles, even ones that are already sold with a rear camera?
So what's the cost here? Well, admittedly it's hard to decide how to explain the value proposition. What is the relative worth of saving a life compared to preventing an injury? If we assume that saving a life is worth ten (10) times as much as preventing an injury, then what we are buying for $2.7 billion dollars is as follows:
- $286,800 to prevent each injury (times 8374 injuries)
- $2,868,000 to prevent each death (times about 104 deaths)
- $198,900 to prevent each injury (times 8374 injuries)
- $9,945,000 to prevent each death (times about 104 deaths)
Another way to look at this is comparing the number of lives saved to the number of cars with cameras, in order to determine the individual chance that you'll kill someone while backing up. There are 254.4 million registered cars in the U.S.. Comparing this to the expected number of injuries prevented, it seems that the chance you will, during your lifetime, not personally injure or kill someone while backing up because you have a government-mandated camera that you would not have chosen to buy yourself is close to zero. I can't actually calculate the chance, however, without knowing how many additional cars must be fitted with cameras in order to prevent the 8374 injuries (it must be less than the full 254.4 million.)
Now, maybe you think $2.9 million to $10 million dollars is a reasonable price to pay to save a single life of a middle-class person, and that $200,000 to $287,000 is reasonable to prevent a single injury. Personally, I disagree, I think the price is too high in this case, although at least there's the side benefit that we'll all have these cool display screens in our cars, and a little most peace of mind. It seems to me that in cases like this where the cost/benefit ratio is poor, the government should not be forcing everyone to spend more (or buy used).
And what about alternatives? A rear camera plus a LCD screen is not the only way to reduce injuries and deaths. It might be cheaper to use infared or radar sensors plus a warning sound (or even automated braking) to tell drivers when they are about to hit something. If an automaker wants to use this approach instead, will it be allowed to? But the humble New York Times did not consider the issue.
In any case, I wish our media would put a little more effort into their coverage and take a little time to break down the numbers for us. But you know what? They won't. So we would be wise to learn how to use a calculator ourselves.