I want my nanny (state)

Cameron Murray is a blogger that many of the MacroBusiness readers may have read previously. He has a blog called Observations of an Environmental Economist which I followed until Cameron announced his retirement from blogging last year. I have always enjoyed his blog because it presents some refreshing views on a number of topics and I always appreciate “new” thinking about old ideas.

Recently Cameron has popped up a bit on MacroBusiness and also seems to be creeping back into blogging. So today, with the blessing of Cameron I thought I would re-produce one of his latest posts for our readers enjoyment.

There is an odd coexistence between two conflicting safety policies that may well be pursued by the same accident prevention agency. The first seeks to improve safety by alleviating the consequences of risky behaviour. It may take the form of seat belt installation and wearing, airbags, crashworthy vehicle design, or forgiving roads (collapsible lamp posts and barriers). This policy offers forgiveness for a moment of inattention or carelessness. The second policy seeks to improve safety by making the consequences of imprudent behaviour more severe and includes things such as speed bumps, narrow street passages, and fines for violations. Here, people are threatened into adopting a safe behaviour; a moment of inattention or carelessness may have a dire outcome.

While these two policies seem logically contradictory, neither is likely to reduce the injury rate, because people adapt their behaviour to changes in environmental conditions. Both theory and data indicate that safety and lifestyle dependent health is unlikely to improve unless the amount of risk people are willing to take is reduced. (here – my emphasis)

The above passage points out a common logical absurdity, and contains an important lesson for Australian’s with and overeager obsession of controlling personal choices through ‘nanny state’ regulations. More on the nanny state a little later.

First, it is important to examine the hypothesis of risk homeostasis to properly understand the implication of the opening quote, since it claims that neither of the two contradictory policies aimed towards improving safety are effective.

The essential argument of risk homeostasis is that humans have an inbuilt level or risk that they gravitate towards in response to their external environment. If we reduce the risk of an activity, people will compensate by finding other risky activities as a replacement, or undertaking the activity in a more extreme manner. For example, if we ban smoking tobacco, which doesn’t seem like such a remote possibility, do we really expect smokers to replace their habit with fruit snacks and yoga? Or might they compensate by increasing their alcohol consumption or perhaps smoking dope instead.

Risk homeostasis is not to be confused with risk compensation, which suggests that individuals will behave less cautiously in situations where they feel “safer” or more protected, but that we don’t necessary return to a predetermined risk equilibrium point.

Improving transport safety is an area where there is strong evidence risk compensation, and indeed of risk homeostasis.

One reason I am against mandatory bicycle helmets is due to the increased dangers posed by this perception of safety. Not only do cyclists tend to behave more aggressively, but helmet wearing changes the behaviour of other road users. It decreases the rate of cycling, and the effect of fewer cyclists on the road is to increase the danger of the remaining cyclist, but it also makes vehicle drivers act more carelessly around cyclists.

This study fitted a number of bicycles with video cameras and ultrasonic sensors to detect the proximity of vehicles as they passed cyclists on the road. They found that vehicles passed helmeted riders about 8.5cm closer than cyclists without helmets. The suggestion is that drivers perceive there is less risk from clipping a helmeted rider and that helmeted riders are more experienced and unlikely to ride erratically. They also found driver give female cyclists much more room!

Of course this behaviour is all based on perceptions. Helmets themselves provide minimal protection in a limited number of head collisions, and can exacerbate brain injury for some other types of collisions where helmets can increase rotational acceleration during a collision.

The best experimental evidence of risk homeostasis is the famous Munich Taxi-cab experiment, where for three years half the taxi cabs in a fleet had ABS brakes and the other half didn’t, and various monitoring and testing took place including fitting all vehicles with accelerometers.

Among a total of 747 accidents incurred by the company’s taxis during that period, the involvement rate of the ABS vehicles was not lower, but slightly higher, although not significantly so in a statistical sense. These vehicles were somewhat under-represented in the sub-category of accidents in which the cab driver was judged to be culpable, but clearly over-represented in accidents in which the driver was not at fault. Accident severity was independent of the presence or absence of ABS.

Subsequent analysis of the rating scales showed that drivers of cabs with ABS made sharper turns in curves, were less accurate in their lane-holding behaviour, proceeded at a shorter forward sight distance, made more poorly adjusted merging manoeuvres and created more “traffic conflicts”. This is a technical term for a situation in which one or more traffic participants have to take swift action to avoid a collision with another road user. Finally, as compared with the non-ABS cabs, the ABS cabs were driven faster at one of the four measuring points along the route. All these differences were significant.

To put this experiment in the context of our original two options for reducing risk, ABS brakes are an example of an action that reduces the consequences of risky behaviour. Hence such actions decrease total risk. But the study did not end there, and finds some evidence that the opposite type of strategy, increasing the consequences of risk taking, has quite an effect.

In a further extension of their study, the researchers analysed the accidents recorded by the same taxi company during an additional year. No difference in accident or severity rate between ABS and non-ABS vehicles was observed, but ABS taxis had more accidents under slippery driving conditions than the comparison vehicles. A major drop, however, in the overall accident rate occurred in the fourth year as compared with the earlier three-year period. The researchers attributed this to the fact that the taxi company, in an effort to reduce the accident rate, had made the drivers responsible for paying part of the costs of vehicle repairs, and threatened them with dismissal if they accumulated a particularly bad accident record.

My favourite example of different effects of increasing consequences of risk taking versus decreasing the consequences is here.

Sometimes, students would deny that they drive more recklessly when wearing a seatbelt. Tullock liked to illustrate the idea of offsetting behaviour for them by asking what they’d do if a large spike extended from the steering wheel and pointed directly at their heart. Wearing a seatbelt is a mild form of that effect, but in reverse. Tullock’s students came to call the thing the “Tullock Spike”.

Australian policy makers could learn some lessons from risk homeostasis. For any returning Aussie from time abroad the degree of over-regulation can be a shock. One friend recently returned from three years in Paris and said that it was the one thing that enraged them the most about coming home. Think about it. We can’t buy alcohol at the supermarket, nor drink it in a public place, nor smoke in a building even if the owner is trying to run a cigar smoking cafe. In fact the body corporate of an apartment building recently passed a by-law to stop people smoking in their own homes!

With the recent surge in anti-smoking opinion, not only will smokers pay ridiculous taxes, cigarette producers will need to adorn their prized products with pictures of diseased organs, but not their own brand label. Luckily, alcohol is exempt from such measures which might make the Chinese communist party blush, yet arguable alcohol is a far greater public health concern.

We can’t buy fireworks or ride without a helmet. There are now calls to ban topless bathing on NSW beaches and there is the infamous internet filter proposed my communications minister Conroy. Oh, I almost forgot the proposal to ban teachers from using red pens when marking because red is an aggressive colour!

We can’t be expected to navigate construction zones on the street without 17 different warning signs, stop-go lollipop ladies, flashing lights and orange fencing, nor, it seems, are we expected to navigate over treacherous cracks in footpaths, with councils often paying compensation to ‘victims’ of such treachery. We have the slowest speed limits yet many would say the worst drivers.

Policy makers must believe the average Australian has both multiple personality disorder and signs of schizophrenia. Someone who can perfectly judge their own financial risk when taking on massive debt, can choose their own career, raise their own children, run their own businesses and judge the associated risks, yet when it comes to the basics of life, like having a beer, tanning your breasts, or navigating the street, we all become complete morons incapable of rational behaviour.

I have no problems with governments intervening to protect people for the actions of others, but they should be make their own choices about their personal safety. The strongest argument in favour of this position is the theory of risk homeostasis. It seems we really can’t save people from themselves. In fact the parent in me suggests that all this molly-coddling decreases our ability to judge real risks when they arise.

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  1. We’re probably about to see all the cigar cafe entrepeneurs leaving in their thousands for France.

    I hope none of them want to wear the hijab.

  2. Great article!

    One example of the Nanny State… DIY wiring. Unlike in the rest of the world one is not allowed to do anything more than change a lightbulb! This really infuriates me as I have always done DIY wiring in Holland, correctly using the local standards.

    This article is a great example of what is being said above:

    [quote]Yet our nearby neighbour N.Z. allows this and much more freedom in general wiring , replacement of sockets, construction of power leads and the repair of appliances than we do.

    From the above lets first squash 2 immediate issues ->

    1/ Standards – both countries use the same combined standard As/Nzs:3000

    2/ Saftey – Deaths per million in Aust are approx 1 -> N.Z is a bit less at approx 0.7

    Rather that beat up the dangers and hide information on how to safetly do some of your own work New Zealand publishes informative specific guides on how to do your own and what is permitted.[/quote]

    One has got to wonder… is this really about safety, or is this yet another example of Oz overprotecting a sector at the expense of the consumer?

    All this protection has kept innovation and efficiency at minimal levels. So we know how to use a shovel… great.

    • – And, when you DO have a peek behind the wall plates, the standard of wiring is uniformly very poor, which says a lot for the monopolistic dominance of the “Licenced Tradesman”. Yet, it’s perfectly possible, and legal, to buy fixed wiring components in retail outlets such as Bunnings! Next thing, we’ll be banned from changing the washers in our (poorly designed) tapware!

      • Australian wiring may seem dodgy, but you should see some of the household wiring in the UK! I only recently realised it was perfectly legal for random people to do their own wiring, but I can see the consequences of that now. (OTOH, every house with gas has to have a yearly safety check.)

      • Thanks for saying this. I didn’t want to do mention it because I’m well aware of the risk of becoming the whinging migrant.

        The DIY I did back in Holland was of a better quality than what I found over here in our rental property. I’m also pretty confident the risk of fire was a lot smaller because I (and everyone else I know) always used tubes and boxes to properly protect the wires. Those weird, very unsafe looking terminal boxes to connect too many wires using just one screw are not even available in Holland! Of course I never touched the switchboard. That one is illegal, which to me seems to make sense.

        As with a lot of things over here government protection has had dreadful consequences for quality and efficiency in this country. It would be cool to do a series of comparisons of everyday things in Oz and other countries. 😛

        • It works both ways. Just like when I applied for a dutch drivers licence, and ticked the box indicating that I wear contact lenses. Obviously, therefore I had to go to a doctor to have an eye test. What was that going to prove? That I wear contact lenses? I had already admitted that!

          How long do you think it took to get an appointment with the doctor for the eye test? The receptionist nearly had a heart attack when I asked if I could get an appointment for that day. Nee, nee, nee… Minimum one week.

          A week, just to see a doctor to verify that I wear contact lenses…

          And then there were the wires hanging out of the ceiling in our apartment…

          • To true, as a migrant you start cherry-picking and the fact that I’m pointing out things which I feel are better organised in Holland does not mean there are no things which aren’t better organised in Australia. I’m not here because Holland is perfect. 😛

            About the wires… did you feel compelled to touch both of them at the same time, or were you happy to turn of the power, connect a lightbulb/lamp and then turn on the power again… surviving this ordeal without paying through the nose for an electrician? It kinda proves government went overboard on this one…

    • From what I have seen over the years, and in most instances, these restrictions were actually put in place by Labor governments as a nod to their union mates.

      Roofing is an interesting one. Up until the 70s, a carpenter used to be able to install a roof, however as a result of a demarcation dispute between unions, this is now the domain of the plumbers only, and even then only those who are licensed for roofing…It hasn’t helped the general standard of workmanship either!

  3. You can’t legislate against stupidity and you can’t put brains into monuments.

    You can have a cyclical event called a village idiots convention. However, if you make this structural, or permanent, then you have what’s called government.

    We need a new party called-The M.Y.O.F.B. Party. Cameron Murray would make an excelent leader.

    • Do distinguish between competent government and incompetent government. I’ve seen plenty examples of government making some really good decisions and providing some really decent services (better than most businesses). Few of those in Oz though.

      Also, ‘government’ is such a broad term. It includes the friendly (well, in Adelaide anyway) busdriver, the caring nurse, the life-saving doctor, ambo’s, coppers and firies.

      I assume you mean politicians… in that case we also have to blame ourselves, the electorate. The main reason politicians focus on ad-hoc issues and the next election is because a large chunk of the population cannot see beyond their personal situation or the near future. Politicians want to be re-elected and unfortunately they found the easiest way to be re-elected is by doing what they do now… focus on the rhetoric and ad-hoc issues. If we want to change that we have to change what type of behaviour we reward with our vote. It’s very easy to blame this undefined evil called ‘government’.

      That said, I am a firm believer that government can always do better and should work hard to do so. Using some common sense and a more business like approach would be a nice start.

      • For evidence of the fact that we deserve the kind of governments we elect simply look at the potential US Presidential Republican nominees…Sarah Palin and Donald Trump…God Help America!

        In fact I was once told by one of my uni lecturers that the average intellectual age of Americans is 13, and that Australians were slightly more advanced at 14…I wish I could find a source for this.

  4. Great article, the government really have no business telling us what risks we can or can’t take when the only ones at risk are ourselves.

  5. Great article
    I had to chuckle when I was in the Netherlands recently. A Dutch family rode by, two kids dinking on the mums bike (sedate pace), no helmets. I remarked to my colleagues what a stir this would cause back in Nanny Land.

    • This is an enjoyable website made by an US guy who was just as amazed as you.

      Mind you, infrastructure caters a whole lot better for cyclists in The Netherlands (many bike lanes separate from the main road). Drivers are taught to be mindful of cyclists during driving lessons (no mom and dad driving education in The Netherlands).

      Hope you enjoyed the country and found people to be welcoming. 🙂

      • It’s a cultural paradigm and is similar in many countries across Europe.

        In Italy, every child rides a bike, and from the earliest opportunity, they cast this aside in favour of a scooter long before they actually drive a car. Accordingly, by the time they drive a car, they are far better road users and remain more aware and concerned for the welfare of other bike riders (pedal or powered) than they would otherwise be.

        I remember reading some statistics on motorcycle ownership from 2006 which showed that there is one motorcycle for every 6 people in Italy versus one per 56 people in the US.

    • No helmet and talking on a mobile would be at least a $200 fine in Queens(nanny)land. No idea if that would increase with a couple of kids in tow as well! (although I ride to work and would never ride without a helmet, the drivers up here are way too dangerous).

  6. Totally agree with this article and I also concur with AnonNL. It is the same with DIY plumbing. It definitely ain’t rocket science, but is not legal in our Nanny state to DIY pipes, although I assume I’m allowed to change my own washer 🙂

    • The reason for the plumbing is for the sewerage. Water coming in is not a problem but if the sewerage going out is not vented properly you can get explosions.

  7. Great article, but I have one question

    “While these two policies seem logically contradictory, neither is likely to reduce the injury rate, because people adapt their behaviour to changes in environmental conditions”

    So what has caused the reduction of the injury rate (particularly on roads)?

    • Thanks for the comments everyone.

      K, the first two paragraphs are a quote from the linked website. I don’t agree fully with that claim. I would say there are ways to reduce the risk compensation.

      For example, if drivers compensate for improved braking by driving faster and paying less attention, keeping the speed limit fixed will stop them driving faster and you will only get the offsetting behaviour of reduced concentration.

      Second, road fatalities statistics continue to improve, but it is difficult to know the extent of the impact of improved medical care on this statistic. Many people who would died from injured sustained may now be living through.

      Whether there is risk compensation for improved medical treatments I’m not sure. We do all die eventually anyway…

    • There wasnt any reduction. There is almost no safety intervention that has ever actually worked.
      During the introduction of seatbelt legislation in Victoria the rate of death and injury on the roads of many states and countries around the world went down with no help at all from Victorias seatbelt laws. It was all to do with the economics of the times.
      A few years later Sweden followed Victorias lead and put in seatbelt laws only to find the overall road toll went up. They thought it hadnt kicked in yet and waited another year only to find it went up again. After ten years they concluded it had made no difference.
      The bike helmet laws in Victoria were hailed as a great success in reducing cyclist deaths by 30% untill somebody pointed out that pedestrian deaths had gone down by 31% over the same period.
      The only safety intervention that has ever worked was probably responsable- the .05 alcohol laws.
      This helps back up the idea of risk homeostasis or compensation as alcohol alters a persons sense of risk.
      The situation was made even more dire than risk compensation would say as the numbers of cyclists in Australia had dramatically reduced after helmet law thereby making the danger statistically greater per cyclist left still riding.
      If you want to read more on this fascinating subject look up John Adams-Risk compensation.

  8. Well hang on, what responsibility does GovCo have in minimising the public’s exposure to financial risks?.

    We’ve seen this limp wristed attempt at jawboning the public to reduce their debt/stop bidding up house prices from Glen Stevens.

    Was it too much or not enough nannying?

    Now consider our tax system and inn particular policies like CGT discount and Negative Gearing. Think now about these in the context of risk homeostasis and risk compensation.

    To what extent have these policies encouraged excessive risk taking?

  9. Yes the trend has been toward more and more government restrictions. If one government restriction doesn’t achieve the desired result, then another government restriction is suggested as the answer.
    What do we want? Government restrictions.
    When do we want it? Now.
    As to the bike helmet “issue”, people can’t seem to deal with various questions separately:
    When is it a good idea to where a helmet?
    How do we wish our police to treat people who do not wear helmets when it would be a good idea to in our opinion?

    • And it should be up to the individual to decide to take the risk or not.

      I can foresee a time – probably within 10 years – when all Australian bicycles are registered and with number plates.

      I’m not kidding.

      This top down nanny approach – soon to be thrust upon the education system with the ridiculous (but perfectly well thought out) national curriculum – is at the heart of Australian bureaucratic “growth”.

      I’m afraid its a cancer we cannot survive.

      • There are a couple of wonderful quotes I love to come back to often when confronted with the lengths we will go to in order to protect people from themselves.

        “Terminal stupidity is a self-limiting disease.” – Ed Connelly

        “When the world is made to be idiot-proof, the world will become overpopulated with idiots.” – Mark Twain

        I think perhaps we have almost reached that point.

        It is comforting however to consider that idiots will always find a way to hasten their own demise; I think we should simply let them try, watching from a safe distance of course.

  10. prince mate what will happen is the productive will leave….then come back when it collapses. I just want to spend half a year here, and the rest of the time in asia on the beach.

    Thats socialism, the parasites in government may start small but eventually they grow like yu said a cancer untill they kill the host, the whole west is fucked.

    The more corrupt the state, the more it legislates. We must be at ultimate corruption.

  11. And the general population votes, they should get it good and hard. Serious look in the street these people around you vote, what fucking hope do we have? The mongrels voting for mongrels. May the Lord help us. LOL.