They’re calling it a “crackdown.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has released a new campaign to increase seat belt usage through highly visible enforcement of traffic laws. The mobilization combines a projected $10 million in paid national advertising with heightened enforcement and local media coverage. The idea is that increasing visibility of enforcement will encourage people to wear their seat belts when driving. But is it really advisable for the government to use scare tactics to frighten people into a desirable behavior?
Increasing seat belt usage is a good idea. The NHTSA estimates that in 2001, 7,334 lives could have been saved if all vehicle occupants over age 4 had been wearing safety belts. Of the 31,910 vehicle occupants killed in crashes that year, 60 percent were not wearing a safety belt. The message is clear and cliché: seat belts save lives.
The government wants to save lives, and seat belt laws are the cheapest way to do so. Tammy Tengs, a public-health specialist at Duke University, calculated that among 500 different life saving regulatory techniques, mandatory seat-belt-use laws provide the most bang for the taxpayers buck ($69 per life-year saved). Yet although seat belt laws are more cost effective than writing letters to problem drivers (which Tengs notes costs $720,000 per life-year saved), we should consider how far the government is willing to go in order to keep people buckled up.
The NHTSA has local law enforcement agencies across the nation primed up for public intimidation. Their Law Enforcement Action Kit includes stock media that local law enforcement agencies can send out to the public such as a press release and video. “Seat belts clearly save lives. But unfortunately, too many folks still need a tough reminder,” the sample OpEd warns.
The campaign is based on an economic analysis of law, which describes how a person behaves when faced possible sanction. Assuming that the person is risk averse, she will evaluate the decision in terms of expected value. The greater the magnitude of sanction and probability of enforcement, the lower the expected value from breaking the law. For example, if there’s a 10 percent chance of facing a $200 sanction for not wearing a seat belt, following the law is “worth” $20. If the value of not wearing a seat belt is less than the expected value of following the law, she will wear her seat belts; if her annoyances associated with wearing a seat belt are greater than the expected value of following the law, she will not.
Because local authorities do not usually publish information about the probability of sanctions, perception of enforcement is imperfect. With their national “Click it or Ticket” campaign, the NHTSA is taking advantage of this fact by coordinating efforts to make the probability of sanction seem more likely than it actually is. State agencies will return to their previous enforcement levels when the campaign is over, but the NHTSA is banking on the fact that you won’t notice. The hope is that you will be more likely to wear a seat belt because you will over-estimate the probability of getting caught.
A video in the Law Enforcement Action Kit confirms the NHTSA’s deceptive approach. “We know the formula: vigorous enforcement and publicity. To make sure that our citizens know we’re serious, we all need to be out in force bucking down on those who are not buckled up.”
We can forget how scary driving really is. Traveling just 150 miles by car will increase your chance of dying in an accident by one in a million over the next year. According to the National Safety Council, car occupants face a 1 in 18,412 chance of dying.
Driving is scary enough without government bureaucrats and local law enforcement agencies teaming up to manipulate your judgments. “Click it or Ticket” and other government campaigns that combine public intimidation with deception test the tolerance of a free society.
Taylor W. Buley is author of “The Fresh Politics Reader” and is the founding editor-in-chief of the Pennsylvania Independent, a student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire