The New Arms Race

People often justify purchasing larger vehicles for safety reasons. The larger the mass, the more likely it is to just crush things in its way during a collision. The problem is that it creates an arms race where everyone just keeps buying ever-heavier vehicles in the endless quest for safety.

I certainly understand the desire for safety. Automobiles are the number one cause of death for Americans under the age of 45.

But the problem with buying heavier vehicles to increase safety is that it only increases your safety at the expense of the safety of others. Yet the driver of the heavier vehicle never has to pay or compensate other drivers for the increased risk they have created. Normally, if you engage in a risky behavior, you pay for it in increased insurance premiums, increased penalties when things go wrong, or stricter liability when other people get hurt. But, for some reason, we don’t do this with vehicles.

We allow people to make the roads more dangerous without asking them to compensate others for the danger they are creating. One consequence of this is that, since they don’t have to pay for the increased risk, there is no disincentive to take the risk. A heavier vehicle is all gain and zero negative for the individual, and all negative for everyone else.

Drivers of larger vehicles may pay out more damages in the event of an accident, but that’s because the actual damage they inflict is greater, and so the amount required to make an injured party whole is higher. But if we limit the risk taker to only having to compensate others for actual damages, the injured party still isn’t being compensated for the fact that, had the heavy-vehicle driver chosen a smaller vehicle, his injuries never would have happened in the first place, or would have been less severe. The heavy vehicle operator has then off-loaded his own safety risk to the rest of society without having to pay for it.

I think this is an area where the law ought to intervene in order to shift some of the cost of that risk back to the person creating it, rather than letting it fall on the backs of everyone else. Some states already tax vehicles based on their weight. And heavier vehicles pay more gas taxes. But those taxes only go to repair the damage on the roads that heavier vehicles make. They are not off-setting the increased safety risk.

Some people might cry “freedom.” That this uneven distribution of risk is just a consequence we all have to live with because people are free to drive whatever kind of vehicle they want. Let me see if I can get these people over to my side by use of a hyperbolic example. Say I had lots of money, and was very concerned about my safety, and being aware that automobiles are the number one cause of death for people my age, I decide that to reduce my chance of injury in the event of a vehicle to vehicle collision, I am going to purchase the heaviest vehicle I can find. So that instead of stopping in a collision, I’ll just plow right through the other vehicle like it isn’t even there. You might say, “Yeah, that’s your right.” Now let’s say, the vehicle I choose is the largest dump truck I can find. And let’s say, to make it even safer, I decide to move the driver’s seat towards the middle of the vehicle, install the largest snow plow I can find on the front of it, spend $10M modifying the chassis, adding wheels and axles, so it can carry enormous amounts of weight (the largest production dump truck in the world can carry 800,000 pounds), and then I proceed to fill it with the densest material I can find, maybe lead bricks. And of course I would include increased brakes and any other necessities so it had similar performance as any other stock vehicle on the road. And let’s say I’m sixteen and just got my license two days ago. You still think I shouldn’t face any additional penalties if I then choose to drive drunk? Or recklessly? After all, why wouldn’t I? I won’t be the one getting hurt.

You might say that’s different, because there were after market modifications. Ok,  let’s say this idea turned out to be so popular that millionaires the world over wanted this vehicle guaranteed to keep you safe. And demand was so strong that GM stepped up and started producing a line of them. You really think people who deliberately choose to make the roads more dangerous for everyone else shouldn’t face any increased burdens in order to offset that risk? And if you think the driver of an 800k pound vehicle who makes these choices ought to face additional responsibilities for the increased liabilities he’s created, then you shouldn’t have a problem doing it for the driver of an 8k pound vehicle either.

I propose we start discussing ways to shift the burden back to the individuals who decrease everyone else’s safety for the sake of their own.

One way would be allow the weight of the vehicle to factor in during tort claims. If there is an accident that results in damages to property, or injuries, or death, the court ought to be permitted to award punitive damages against the driver of the heavier vehicle, punishing them for the increased risk they have created on the road.

Another might be to make fines proportional to the weight of a vehicle. A moving violation in a Yaris might be $200. But in a Hummer, it could be closer to $1,000. We could simply take the vehicle’s gross weight and multiply it by some figure we can all agree on.

Sure, the heavy driver would still be safer at the expense of the smaller, but at least they would have to pay for it. Right now, they’re getting it for free. Which is why I know this would never be a very popular idea, regardless of whether or not it would be good policy.

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8 Comments

  1. chenda
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Does’nt the market already take this into account though as, ceteris paribus, increased vehicle size will result in higher insurance premiums ? Which should serve as a disincentive to purchase a larger vehicle, as you pay more for liability cover.

  2. Posted May 17, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink
  3. Mike
    Posted May 18, 2012 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    From an economics standpoint, there is a penalty through higher gas costs. From a risk standpoint, there may not be penalty. There are all sorts of ways that our society creates twisted incentives and mis-allocates risk / reward. This would just be one of them.

    One way to make things safe(r) for drivers of lighter vehicles would be to limit the power available for larger ones. For example, if those two GM death machines in the photo above were limited to 125 horsepower, they wouldn’t be as dangerous for the rest of us.

  4. et
    Posted May 18, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    Fines by weight is a good idea.

    I think we should also add an organ donation statement to all drivers licenses – “By accepting this license you agree to be an organ donor. If do not agree to organ donations you will not be considered for organ transplants.”

  5. jennypenny
    Posted May 22, 2012 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    What if you’re driving around a van with seven people in it? Is that better than driving two small cars with 3 or 4 people in them? I’m not sure. I would guess that fewer vehicles on the road is the safer choice there. You’d have to base the fines on vehicle weight per passenger.

    @et–I wouldn’t require organ donations (some religions have a problem with it), but I agree that if you aren’t a registered organ donor you shouldn’t be a candidate for transplant. You’re either in the organ pool or you’re out.

  6. Posted May 28, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I lived this danger on Saturday. We have an old Miata that we needed to move from Napa to to south of San Francisco. It’s a great car for driving around town, but on the highway it’s a bit scary–simply because of the HUGE cars all around me. My husband followed me in the Prius, at least I knew I wouldn’t get rear-ended. But the trucks and SUVs zipping by me on both sides made for a white knuckle drive for 2 hours, until I was able to get off the freeway.

  7. Wesley
    Posted May 29, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I love scenarios like this. If I really wanted safety, I’d just kill everyone else in the world before they can harm me…I mean, with unlimited funds, I can buy bombs and everything I’ll need. That’s my right too, correct?

    The problem with these up-scale events is that yes, they can indeed occur, but they’re likely to only occur once (if at all). Perhaps the mere chance of their occurrence is enough for you to ask the government to intervene and clamp down with new laws. I’m not of the same mindset.

    The world is risky. Some fears are justified. Rather than forcing everyone in the world to buy a smaller car, perhaps you should buy your dump truck…or maybe you can live with a little risk.

    Great article, it definitely made me think. I also enjoy your comments on the ERE forums.

  8. Maus
    Posted May 31, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Now that’s some “thinking like a lawyer” on display…
    While I prefer the use of liability to shift risk, as opposed to a general policy mandating everyone drive small cars (hey, I’m 6’2″ and gravitationally challenged), your notional cause of action lacks a duty to other drivers that is specific to behemoth-like SUVs. Theoretically, the prudent, non-DUI driver of a Yaris is equally likely to drive a Hummer in a neligence-free manner. Add black ice, and we have tragedy but no tort. Or are you suggesting strict liability? If so, where do you draw the line in GVW? Perhaps we should require different licensure depending on vehicle weight? Some interesting food for thought; but I will continue to drive my broken-down old Chevy pickup.