Secondary Consequences

One of the first things I learned in my intro economics class was that good intentions do not always equal good outcomes. I found this idea fascinating, especially when my professor presented an example of how some safety regulations can actually result in the deaths of more people than it saves.

Take the recent example of some consumer groups advocating the FAA require parents to use an infant seat for children under two aboard commercial flights. One argument in support states that during turbulence it is possible for infants to be injured or killed if the parents are unable to maintain a proper grip. When initially presented with this scenario, the requirement seems like a great idea that will save lives … right? The catch is that many will not stop to think about the consequences this might lead to in the long run, so let’s dig a little deeper.

If parents had to buy an extra plane ticket in order to follow the infant seat requirement, many would choose to drive instead of fly, hoping to save money. Unfortunately for them, data shows that flying on a commercial airliner is far safer than driving in an automobile. Therefore, if the FAA required the use of infant seats, not only would it lead to more deaths, but it would also put the entire family at a higher risk, doing quite the opposite of saving lives, which it was trying to accomplish in the first place.

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  • Joao Pedro Afonso says:

    “The Hell is full of good intentions”, they say. I, too, am very interested in this idea since it remind us off the very nature of reality: complex, not necessarily accessible by a first thought. Which makes it fun to watch…

    Your post prompted me several thoughts/comments: First, while general travel statistics are a good point to start, we need more specific statistics to take a conclusion. If air travel is safe for the general population, that doesn’t implies automatically the same to sub-populations with specific needs and small enough to not influence the general picture. This might appear a critic to your choice of particular statistics to comment the idea, but is above all an implicit critic to whoever argue saying “is possible”… considering that we are talking about the possibility of deaths or grave injuries through a situation that has been lasting for years, it surely must exist statistics relating those specific kind of accidents, and must be those to be put forward, not the argument of the “possibility” (while precaution is good, resources are scarce and there must exist some common sense in applying them… many dreadful things are possible but we don’t act on prevent them). But saying that, it is very possible that those more specific statistics show themselves to be less favorable to air travel, than the ones you pointed. Maybe the proponents of the measure are aware of that statistics and acting on it. And if the adoption of such measure builds a greater trust in air traffic for children than the present day, it might attract more clients than repulse them.

    .(On a side maverick note, it is weird how in many recent publicized air crashing accidents, the only survivals were children).

    Second, I find odd that the proponents are “consumer groups”. Consumer groups are about safety, price but also informed choices in products. I don’t see them lobbying to something which is going to restrict their own choices or opportunities to act has free individuals. I can see safety regulatory organisms or insurance companies doing that, not consumer groups. So, I don’t believe I’m seeing the all picture right now, and need to know more: are children paying ticket? Whatever they are paying, an infant seat weight never sums to the variable weight of an adult… there is no reason for an air company to demand much more in the ticket, or simply, more, if they are going to loose clients with that. They are not paying because they don’t occupy seats? Instead of a infant seat, why not a special light harness to keep children safely in the lap of their parents during the travel? Or maybe, the air companies are not providing infant chairs when demanded… now, that’s something which I can think consumer groups doing: not restricting choices but incrementing them. And if that’s the case, there are all the reasons for air travel to gain costumers, not to loose them.

    (Again, I don’t know what is really happens, I simply don’t think if they are minimally competent, that the example you presented is the all picture)

    • Allison says:

      Thanks for your reply! You really brought up some great points, which in turn helped me dig even deeper into the topic at hand. I agree that it’s often difficult to figure out with certainty what kind of effects a new policy or regulation will have, especially because variables can shifted and statistics argued, even among a group of economists.

      When I mentioned “consumer groups” in my post, I was quoting the wording my professor used when he presented this scenario to us. I tried searching the internet for more details on this when I was writing, but came up short. Upon re-googling this now, I was able to dig up some more information. According to these two websites, the regulation has been proposed numerous times by various groups including the National Transportation Safety Board, the Los Angeles Area Child Passenger Safety Association, and is usually backed by many members of congress. Research presented in the second article states that “In a study prepared for the FAA, Department of Transportation researchers concluded that mandatory infant safety seats could have prevented at most only one infant death since 1978.” This leads into a similar and related topic that I also find interesting: when politicians present ideas that look good for their image in the short-run, hoping to be re-elected, yet ignore the long-term consequences of their actions. (But, this topic is for another post, another day. :)

      Regardless, I think the two articles I linked to will provide some further interesting reading on the topic. I look forward to reading more of your responses in the future!

      • Joao Pedro Afonso says:

        Thank you for your reply Allison. Your links provide an apt answer to my doubts: I’m convinced of the objections against the proposal now… their homework appears to have been done.

        All the consumer groups you described are safety groups, which explains my discrepancy of images. I have at least one in my country but until now I would have be pressed to think them as a group of consumers. The picture you presented appears also to be more and more, a pretext to force people to buy more seats… you hinted the companies are interested that it will pass.

        In second thoughts, I wonder, why? In regarding the collateral casualties of the measure (not only the children lost in land traffic but also the people with them), it is clear that many more people than the children will be diverted to road traffic… that’s lost tickets too. Thinking in full families, one toddler (half-ticket) to two parents (two full tickets), probably one or more children, considering the opportunity price of not selling full tickets against half tickets (assuming the last are an option), I see the gains very marginal to the companies, even if they exist… this because they do not loose only the tickets for the children, they loose more. The children they’ll start to charge will have to compensate several tickets per diverted child, not sold because of that. And this probably explains why air companies didn’t started their own internal regulations in prole of forcing the seats: they could have but feared the lost tickets to other companies. Still, in the deregulated world of the US Air travel, what forbids companies from maintaining the same fares system of before to get the customers out of those who charge? The same reason that lead them to trust a regulatory action to force a measure to everyone, fear from treason from their pears, might also lead then in the end to a situation much worst: all the cost of the measure and nothing of the benefices… if they enroll in a war using that argument, maintaining the prices of before.

        If that war ever happens, air traffic customers will increase, not decrease. Not that I think that will happen.. I’m only thinking that it is not that clear how positive is the proposal to the air companies.

        PS.: I still like more my idea of an special harness at a marginal cost, as a standard safety item… glad to see the hints that it was considered too.


  • […] isn’t the first time we’ve discussed unintended consequences here at Rational Reactor. Many policies that are intended to keep people safe often end up with […]


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