The Spectacle Blog

Biden should read Peltzman

By on 1.17.13 | 9:09AM

Joe Biden, always an insightful public servant, recently said this:

“Well they didn’t want to have air bags. Well, guess what? We have air bags. We’re saving lives." 

Unfortunately, Sam Peltzman and his progeny have developed a large economic literature that questions this conclusion. No one expects Mr. Biden to keep up with economics (he has enough trouble remembering other things), but the "Peltzman effect" is a subtle yet simple idea: if you lower the cost of doing something (i.e. the risks of driving more hazardously), then consumers will demand more of it (i.e. drive more hazardously). Russ Roberts sums it up nicely:

"In general, airbags have the same effect as seatbelts—they reduce the likelihood of injury and death from an accident which in turn increases reckless driving and the number of accidents. But in the early days of airbags, they could kill you, especially if you were a small person or a child. That led to some tragic deaths of kids in the passenger seat and small women in the driver seat. That in turn led to the government changing the requirements on the speed and force of the airbag deployment. "

My point is not to criticize Biden's magnanimous gun bravado. Nor is it to affirmatively declare that air bags increase deaths (this is an empirical question). It's merely to note that there are unintended consequences to regulation and "the fatal conceit" is always ready to rear its ugly head.

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