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Don’t Trust Your Safety to Fascists

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The car fascists are at it again.

Several technologies have been invented over the last decade that can help prevent vehicle collisions. A story in the Boston Globe reports that among these are “lane-departure warning, forward-collision warning, adaptive cruise control, automatic breaking, and electronic stability control.”

Great news, right? The wonders of the market never cease. And, according to the Globe story, the features listed above “are available on many vehicles already.”

Already! Ah, the free market.

But here’s the rub: they’re found “primarily on higher-end models.”

That’s right. If you want these nice new gadgets, you’re going to have to pay for them.

The incredible prosperity brought about by competition and supply-and-demand has transformed our society into one made up of “haves and have laters.” That means wealthier people get really nice things right away, while the rest of us get those things a little later, when supply increases or production costs come down. Once upon a time that seemed quite reasonable.

In this day and age, however, spoiled brats rule the roost. The Globe reports that “The National Transportation Safety Board said [the new technologies] should be required on all vehicles, despite the auto industry’s concern that doing so could add thousands of dollars to the cost of a car” (emphasis added). The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers estimates that these features could add anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 to a car’s price tag.

“We don’t want safety to be only for the people who can afford it,” the NTSB’s chairman, Deborah Hersman, told the Globe.” In the bizarro world of federal regulations, class-warfare rhetoric trumps the laws of economics. The people hurt most by this will be the poorest — they will be priced out of all new cars instead of just some of them. The likes of Hersman can then denounce the “greed” of automobile makers instead of rethinking their own needless meddling.

Consumers can already choose from a variety of safety features, depending on their budget and their preferences. By mandating all of these options, the government prevents people from choosing what they want. As author Thomas Woods so eloquently says, it’s “a case of scanning the options … and eliminating the choice [consumers] actually selected.”

Over the last few decades a number of safety devices have gone from market features to federal requirements. Seat belts, for example, were consumer options before 1966. Air bags were consumer options before 1998 (because of a law passed in 1991).

Also in 1998, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard was amended to require second-generation airbags. Why? Because of the many injuries caused by first-generation airbags.

Consumers who likely didn’t want any airbags to begin with were deemed too stupid by federal regulators, and so had first-generation airbags forced on them. From 1991 on, manufacturers scrambled to meet the airbag standard set to go into effect in 1998.

This blew up (no pun intended) in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s face when stories of children being decapitated by airbags started making the headlines. One hundred and seventy-five people were killed by airbags between 1990 and 2000.

But no one could ever accuse government regulators of humility. Rather than back off and leave safety-feature purchases to consumers, the bad press just resulted in the NHTSA countering with figures of its own: according to the agency, over 6,000 lives have been saved by airbags.

Regulators will point with pride to this alleged victory for federal safety mandates, but the record of such successes is really dubious. In his excellent book Rollback, Woods reports that “between 1925 and 1960 automobile fatalities decreased by 3.5 percent per mile driven per year, at a time when safety regulations were essentially nil.” During this period, automobile manufacturers offered more and more safety features on their cars. Consumers voluntarily purchased these options, and lives were saved. Lots of lives.

That wasn’t good enough for our federal betters. In stepped bureaucrats from the NHTSA and NTSB, and so began a history of regulations and mandates that have not made us, overall, any safer than people would be if allowed to make their own choices: Woods writes that “the rate of decrease in fatalities per mile in the post-regulation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration era” is still 3.5 percent per year.

Speaking about the proposed new safety requirements, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers vice-president Gloria Bergquist said “The choice to purchase one or more belongs to consumers.” She’s absolutely right.

We should trust ourselves to make choices about our own safety and the safety of our loved ones. The record shows that free people are quite capable of doing that on their own.

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    Scott McPherson is policy adviser at The Future of Freedom Foundation. An advocate of the Free State Project, he lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.