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Thank you, NHTSA?

According to a new study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), federal automobile safety requirements have saved 329,000 lives over the last 45 years.  No free lunch, though, as the WSJ (sr) reports:

Government-mandated safety
features have added $839 and 125 pounds to today’s average passenger
car compared with pre-1968 vehicles.

The NHTSA said that average cost is similar to what
many people pay for popular options, including sun roofs, compact-disc
players or custom wheels. The agency also calculated the cost at
$544,000 for every life saved.

The study didn’t look at the newest safety features,
such as side air bags or electronic stability control. It also didn’t
take into account the government’s fuel-economy regulations, which
NHTSA research has said lightened vehicles and made them more prone to
deadly crashes.

Alas, the other factor ignored by the study is the lives that would have been saved had the government done absolutely nothing and merely relied on the desire of automobile manufacturers to please their customers by making safer cars.  From 1920 to 1960, automobile fatalities per million miles driven plummeted in the absence of federal regulation.  (You can find the chart in this old post of mine—scroll down to the next entry from the bottom and you’ll find the data).  Basically, there’s nothing in the crude data to suggest that federal regulation (or Ralph Nader for that matter) had a large impact. 

There could still be some impact teased out of the numbers in a more sophisticated analysis.  But to ignore the trend that comes from our rising standard of living and the resulting demand for safety is to grossly overstate the effectiveness of federal regulation.  And that means the estimate of $544,000 per life saved is an underestimate.  Then again, the $839 overstates the cost, because some of the improvements would have taken place voluntarily.  And it understates the cost because it does not include compliance costs or lobbying costs by manufacturers.

Here is the NHTSA press release which includes the URL for the study.