[FOUNTAIN]Why airbags aren’t as safe as they seem

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[FOUNTAIN]Why airbags aren’t as safe as they seem

Do safety devices like airbags and antilock brakes reduce the risk of car accidents? The engineers might say yes.
Economists, however, would respond differently. The development of such technologies has actually contributed to an increase in car accidents. As cars become safer, drivers become more reckless ― a phenomenon known as the Peltzman Effect, after Professor Sam Peltzman of the University of Chicago, who first raised the concern.
In 1975, Mr. Peltzman examined how regulations requiring car makers to add safety devices such as seat belts affected the number of car accidents. He found that they drastically lowered the fatality rate per accident; however, an increase in the total number of accidents offset the decline in the fatality rate. As a result, the study confirmed, the safety regulations resulted in an increase in the number of traffic accidents and their victims.
As the risk entailed in accidents dropped, drivers became less sensitive to the danger and more likely to accelerate. Mr. Peltzman explained that this was natural economic behavior on the part the drivers, who wished to increase their profit (speedy travel) as their cost (the risk of accident) decreased.
The problem is that there is no way to prevent the Peltzman Effect. For example, let’s consider a car with a grenade packed in the steering wheel instead of an airbag. Any accident would kill the driver, so drivers would be extremely careful. The fatality rate of traffic accidents would be 100 percent, but the number of accidents would dramatically decrease, and as a result, fewer people might be killed overall. But such an extreme measure will not be taken, since no one would get into a car with a grenade in it.
A similar phenomenon can be seen in Korean society. Under the military regimes, citizens were severely punished for speaking freely. We did not have a safety measure ― i.e., freedom of speech. But nowadays, when we can speak as we like, people say things they shouldn’t. Politicians’ inconsiderate language can lead to all-out confrontations.
Unfortunately, we cannot stop this. Trying to forcibly muzzle speech is not much different from the idea of equipping cars with grenades instead of airbags. The balance of responsibility and liberalism is a difficult task.


by Nahm Yoon-ho

The writer is head of the family affairs team at the JoongAng Ilbo.
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