“Government regulation” is a bad thing, or so I’m told. It handcuffs American business, drives jobs overseas, robs us of our basic freedoms and is somehow responsible for the career of Kim Kardashian, just to mention a few of its evil consequences.
I get all that. Nobody likes rules. This is America, sweet land of liberty, the land of the open range and the open highway.
Born to be wild. Rebels without a cause. Don’t tread on me. I’m all in.
But something puzzles me. According to numbers released just this week, our nation’s highways are safer today than they have ever been. Last year, 32,310 people were killed in traffic accidents. That’s a lot, but it’s the lowest number recorded since 1949, when we started counting such things.
The rate of highway fatalities has also dropped significantly, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As recently as 1994, the fatality rate for each 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 1.73; by 2011, that rate had been sliced down to 1.09 per hundred million miles traveled.
The benefits of that 37 percent reduction have been enormous, as the chart below documents. The blue line shows the actual number of highway fatalities each year from 1994 to 2011; the red line shows the number of fatalities that would have occurred if we had allowed the fatality rate to remain at 1994 levels.
See the difference between the blue and red lines? That represents some 18,000 lives saved in 2011 alone.
Now how was that achieved? You could argue, I suppose, that we Americans have somehow become saner, more adept drivers. I would then volunteer to take you on a rush-hour tour of Atlanta’s interstates. You would probably survive the experience; your argument, however, would not.
So what explains such a dramatic improvement? As hard as it may be for some to admit, those 18,000 lives were saved almost entirely because of government regulation. (And if you started the chart even earlier, say around 1970 with passage of the National Highway Safety Act, the number of lives saved would easily double or triple.)
Over the years, government regulations have mandated the installation of seat belts, and then the use of those seatbelts. They have mandated air bags as standard equipment and then the engineering of crash-resistant passenger compartments. They now require the use of car seats for infants and young children.
Government has lowered the blood-alcohol level used to define drunken driving, and raised the penalties for violating those restrictions. It has established nationwide standards on highway design, safety barriers, etc. Requirements and training for teen-aged drivers have been tightened as well.
That government regulation has not come without cost. Air bags, for example, aren’t cheap. The automakers fought like hell for years against the requirement that they become standard equipment. And at times, the rules can feel like a personal imposition. I confess to driving around town sometimes without my seat belt buckled, just because it feels better not to be confined. Not too bright, maybe, and not legal, but …
But let’s be serious about what’s at stake: When Benjamin Franklin observed that “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety,” I’m pretty sure that he was referring to restrictions a little more profound than a seatbelt law.
I define liberty by my ability to think what I like and say what I like and read what I like and go where I like. Wearing a seatbelt is not an infringement on my basic liberty, not considering the lives that law has saved and will save in years to come. Likewise, I don’t believe that requiring automakers to install life-saving equipment, or forcing them to recall defective products, is an infringement on their economic freedom. It’s just common sense.
Government regulation, in other words, is a neutral term. Unnecessary regulations, outdated regulations, regulations that give an unfair economic advantage to one group over another — they have no legitimate place in the law. But in a metaphoric as well as literal sense, regulations also allow us to barrel 80 mph side by side down the highway of life without doing serious harm to each other.
And that’s a good thing.
– Jay Bookman