Suicidal driving

17th January, 2004

Dear Economist,

My son has just passed his driving test, but he drives like a lunatic.

I am sure it’s only a matter of time before he has an accident, but now he has his eyes on a clapped-out second-hand car that I’m sure won’t provide him with much protection. I’ve even been considering buying him something a bit more sturdy just to improve his chances. Do you think this is a good idea?

Yours truly,

Tricia Stott, Wilmslow

Dear Ms Stott,

You are proposing an engineering solution to a psychological problem. You say your son drives like a lunatic, but it may be more helpful to think of him as preferring speed and fun to safety. Given these preferences his driving style is rational.

It may not help if you put him in a safer car. But, if his car was equipped with nitro-glycerine in the boot and spikes on the steering column, your son might be encouraged to drive more carefully.

On the other hand a car with many safety features lowers the danger of exciting driving, and your son would rationally choose more excitement. This phenomenon is called the “Peltzman Effect”, after economist Sam Peltzman, who found that safer cars led to more casual driving, more accidents, roughly the same number of driver deaths and an increase in pedestrian casualties. Although the Peltzman Effect remains controversial, some subsequent research has reached similar conclusions. Peltzman’s work suggests that if your son is confident in his car’s safety features, his swashbuckling driving style will compensate for them.

The solution is obvious: make sure your son believes his car is dangerous. Let him buy his second-hand car but insist that it goes for a service. Get the mechanics to secretly install air-bags and anti-lock brakes, all the while shaking their heads about what a “beast” the car is.

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