When is risk of death acceptible?

We’ve all heard the argument in favour of some new measure or restriction, “If it saves just one life it’s worth it.”

Look at the changes to a schoolbus: that outswinging stop sign, and that sweeping arm in front. The expense to outfit the whole fleet of the whole nation must have been huge. And what great ideas they both are!

But if we knew that one and only one life would be saved, would it still be worth all that expense? I would have to say, “yes” but the question does give me pause.

So is this a boundary question? Are there some measures, restrictions, expenses that do NOT make sense if the only benefit is one and only one life? At what point, if any, is the risk of death acceptible?

I’m trying to keep this OP as general as possible: I would not consider it a hijack if the debate swings sanctity of life vs. paranoia about death, for example.

Who is asking and what are the circumstances? You’ll find there is no unambiguous value. A good example is the decision Ford made to not change the Pinto’s fuel tank design as it would cost more than settlements. Certainly their bean counters thought this was unambiguous but the value changed when the news media made the public aware of it.

Padeye: Who is asking and what are the circumstances? You’ll find there is no unambiguous value. A good example is the decision Ford made to not change the Pinto’s fuel tank design as it would cost more than settlements. Certainly their bean counters thought this was unambiguous but the value changed when the news media made the public aware of it.

Excellent point, and well put! This gives rise to a couple of observations, and helps flesh out the question.

(summary of the tanked Pinto)

  1. When the bean counters rendered their original cost/benefit analysis, they did not include the “cost” of public attention. Once that cost was manifest (in the form of the $128 million law suit) and added to the analysis, the recall occurred. So there’s no reason to believe the bean counters became more compassionate. They didn’t alter their cost/benefit “forumla.” One can say this “formula” is their opinon on the value of life - and that opinion was unchanged.

  2. I would be surprised if such decisions are unique to Ford. So decisions of this type are being made, i.e. in one hand the number of lives (and the $-value of any settlements) and in the other hand the cost of (recall, safety feature, law, whatever) to save those lives.

  3. Are those who make these decisions monsters? If yes, do they remain monsters if the number of lives equals one?

  4. What if, instead of the cost to fix the gas tank in the first place, or the cost of recall, or the settlements - what if the only way to have fixed the problem was to raise taxes by %1. Ford estimated the fuel tank problem would cause 180 deaths. Would the tax hike cause outrage if it were only 90, or if there were only one?
    You’re right, Padeye that there are no unambiguous answers. The question is still important to ask. Many measures are taken under the “one life saved” argument. On the surface such an argument is unassailable. But one of the cumulative ill-effects of such decisions is, perhaps, we’ve become too safe.

Wait, wait! I’m not suggesting the Pinto should still be on the road. In my opinion, with limited facts, I believe Ford was wrong in its initial cost/benefit assessment - they should never have allowed the Pinto to hit the dealerships until the problem was fixed.

OTOH: Where I live, an annual tour of homes and gardens was cancelled recently. For years participants would open their homes to show off their gardens/ponds and exchange ideas and tips. One year a visitor to one home slipped and twisted her ankle and sued the homeowner. That was the last year the tour was held.

Consider this a microcosm of society at large, where the stakes are lives not ankles. Is there a cost - not necessarily expressed only in dollars - where the “one life saved” argument fails? If so, in what terms can we express that cost, or what guidelines to make such decisions?

That is sickening. Just once I’d like to see someone file a counter-suit against someone like that, just for ruining the fun.

As for the OP, there are 42,643 people that wouldn’t have died from car crashes in 2003 if we had outlawed vehicles. There will probably be another 43,000 this year…it’s a near certainty. But hey, we all like to drive. I can only hope that I’m not one of the statistics this year, but there’s no way to know.

How many people buy a new car and decline the side impact airbags option because it costs $500 extra? How many people choose to not wear their seatbelts, even though it would be sure to save their lives if they were in a bad accident? In this case, they’re not even saving money…just inconvenience. It’s startling how little value people place on their own lives, when they’re given a chance to decide for themselves…

Well at least we agree on how hard it is to generalize about risk. I think it is safe to say we are often bad at judging risk. I remember hearing that many people were fearful of hydrogen fuel for cars no doubt in part becaue of the film of the Hindenburg which is ingrained in our collective minds. Gasoline is a much more dangerous fuel but we’re used to it. I would imagine if it were introduced today it would never be approved by the DOT.

The Pinto may be more clear cut than some examples but there will always be tradeoffs between economics and safety. No one could build a car that is risk free that anyone could afford so every final production model will be a compromise. If it’s shown a car can be made safer with a modestly priced part no one would argue that it should be done. If a car is less safe than other models but only a reengineering of the basic structure would make it as safe does anyone expdect that will happen?

The pinto story has been echoed recently with fuel tank fires in Crown Victoria police cruisers. They aren’t particularly more dangerous than other cars but police are often parked on the shoulder of busy highways where they face a much greater risk of being rear ended at very high speed. There have been several officers killed or badly injured and IIRC this has promted Ford to add NASCAR style fuel bladders to the tanks.

I think the apocryphal Stalin quote is appropriate, “one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.” How many hundreds of thousands died before seatbelts were added and still how many people don’t use them? Compare that to the high cost of bladder fuel tanks and the relatively small number of high visibility deaths that prompted that change.

My own tale of risk assesment was a woman I dated for a while about ten years ago. She had a pretty severe knee injury recieved in a car wreck because she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. Lots of people don’t wear seatbelts but she was an ICU nurse, someone I would have expected to do the opposite.

Risk is different for different people. When I learned to fly airplanes, some people thought I was nuts. When I learned to fly helicopters, some pilots thought I was nuts. I’ve ridden ‘motorcycles’ since I was five years old. (‘Motorcycles’ is in quotes because I rode mini-bikes between the ages of five and nine. Close enough to count, though.) Living in L.A. as I did, lane-splitting was an everyday practice. I’ve known people who thought I was taking too great a risk just riding a motorcyle, let alone lane-splitting on one. I SCUBA dive occasionally. I’ve met people who think I’m crazy because of all of the ‘dangerous creatures’ in the open ocean that might eat me. To me, flying, motorcycling, and swimmin in the ocean is fun. I consider them relatively safe activities. I understand there are risks involved, but I consider those risks to be acceptable becaus statistically I’m notall that likely to be injured. (Full disclosure: I’ve been in two collisions on a motorcycle when people ‘didn’t see me’, and have dropped a streetbike twice and dirt bikes numerous times.)

From time to time there are some people who call for then end of General Aviation, or a ban on flying over populated areas. These people seem to pop up whenever an airplane lands on top of a house. 'What if an airplane crashes into a crowded schoolyard? :eek: ’ Of course, that’s not likely to happen. Sure it ‘may save a single child’, but the benefits of GA far outweigh the risks.

Many states have mandatory helmet laws for motorcycles. It’s true that most fatal motorcycle crashes involve head injuries, and that such laws have reduced the number of fatalities. (No cite, just anecdotal evidence I’ve heard on the news and from people’s comments.) While I have ridden without a helmet (when it was legal), I understood the risks and the rides were just in the neighbourhood and not in traffic. Just up the block and back. If it were still legal, I’d probably still do it from time to time. But! for anything other than just up the block and back, I would still wear a helmet. Whether or not it was legal, I’ve always worn a helmet. (Except for the instances I’ve just mentioned.) I think it’s nuts that anyone would go out in traffic or travel at high speeds on a motorcycle without one. You don’t need to do anything wrong to have an incident. I was doing about 80 mph on the freeway once when my chain blew. I stayed upright, but it was a scary few seconds. I didn’t ‘need’ my helmet since I didn’t crash – but I could have.

I’m rather cynical when it comes to the ‘If it saves but one child’ argument. While I agree that Ford screwed up with the Pinto, and that helmet laws are a good idea (even if I chafe at people telling me I have to wear one, when I’m intelligent enough to wear one anyway), I suspect that many or most of the people using that argument are ‘pushing their own agendas’.

Hooray for the Space Shuttle Discovery, scheduled to launch today!

Imagine if Columbus, Magellan, or Livingston had their risk-tolerance dials set to today’s levels.

It’s heartening that we still have explorers amongst us. I say again: Hooray for Discovery!

Last time I checked the mortality rate for birth, it was 100%.
:smiley: :eek:

Spock: Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh…
Kirk: …the needs of the few. :stuck_out_tongue: