The Christian Science Monitor has a fascinating piece on how traffic laws cause accidents, by diminishing the attention that drivers pay to the roads and reducing their reliance on their own best judgement. Could their complete absence improve matters?
There is clearly a simple trade-off here. Drivers can choose to concentrate on the road, thus making them better equipped to react to unexpected occurrences and more aware of their surroundings. They could alternatively just trust the lights and the signs.
In a world with traffic laws (pedestrian crossings, traffic lights, etc.) where the rules of the road were perfect and assiduously observed by all drivers and pedestrians, there would probably be little need to pay attention. Accidents under such circumstances would be very seldom, so it might not be worth the effort.
But in a rule-based environment where pedestrians often cross the road unexpectedly in the face of bad or irresponsible drivers in a rush, there are still risks that need attention. This is the reality we live in.
Drivers will thus trade off the benefits of paying sincere attention to the road against the costs, and choose the optimal attention level. “Trusting the lights and the signs for the most part is good enough for me” they might say. But that’s no guarantee that they are actually minimising the number of traffic accidents.
In fact, there is no obviously superior system to my mind. It is plausible that there are societies which have lower accident rates under a system based on the rules of the road than they would under anarchy – the absence of any traffic laws whatsoever.
But empirical research appears to suggest that anarchy actually reduces the number of accidents and fatalities. Without any guidance from traffic laws and conventions, drivers have to pay the strictest attention to the road or suffer the consequences. As a result, everyone is more careful.
Are they happier? Who knows. After all, they would have to pay more attention when they’re travelling, and there’s no way of weighing those costs and benefits against each other. Unless of course, the road system was left to market – and free individuals were left to decide for themselves without government control.
Does the ubiquity of traffic laws indicate that society prefers the rule-based environment? In which, drivers and pedestrians can pay scant attention to their surroundings – but at the increased risk of getting into an accident than under anarchy. Hardly. Most people probably believe that the rules of the road save lives. So maybe if they were educated about the real risks, they might prefer the anarchy system? Tacit support for regulation of traffic may just constitute false consciousness.
It should be no surprise that the presence of regulation and guidance regarding risk is actually counter-productive though. In the financial system, savers contributed to the recent credit crisis by placing their savings in sketchy banks. They presumed that government regulation of risk-taking by financial institutions made their money safe.
But when coupled with government guarantees of their savings, it was a recipe for negligence as people didn’t take the time to analyse the risks themselves associated with a particular bank. Might individuals have done a better job than government regulators at recognising the risks in the financial system if they didn’t have a watch-dog they could trust?
© The Free Marketeer 2009