The big reveal

Tell me what you want, what you really really want.

The problem with traffic regulation is people don’t tell you what you want. What they want is 80 mph speed limits, legal cell phones, and no stop signs.

We know this because we can look at what people do. Economists say it’s a “revealed preference.”

An Australian study tried to quantify how misleading people were by measuring how many kilometers per hour poll answers differ from true beliefs about safe speeds. It confirmed a well known phenomenon. On issues like speed limits, public opinion surveys are worthless. We can accurately measure what people really want, and it’s not what they say they want.

Another economic term related to the difference between talk and belief is “utility.” Utility is the value you place on something apart from its market value. It’s about what you enjoy. Some people choose expensive food over equally nutritious cheaper food. Some people like putting on a flying squirrel suit and leaping into the air and maybe dying. (Flying squirrels have 20 million more years of gliding practice than humans.) Some — most — put their foot down farther than the folks in City Hall like.

It’s about quality of life. And it’s not a trivial issue. Our government says that quality of life is the most important factor we should consider in traffic safety.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says traffic accidents cost nearly a trillion dollars per year. Only a third of that is real dollars. The rest is intangibles. Although we can’t buy intangibles, we can still measure their value. Revealed preferences again. When we look at how people behave, we conclude that the average dollar spent on a hospital bill comes with two dollars worth of unhappiness that don’t show up on the invoice.

NHTSA didn’t commission that report to get people thinking about quality of life. That report was published so, for example, the report on Scottsdale speed cameras could double the cost attributed to traffic accidents.

Remember that Scottsdale report? It counted delay due to accidents as reason to enforce speed limits, but didn’t count time savings from faster driving as reason not to.

Our government counts quality of life as a reason to take your money, but not a reason to leave you alone.

What is the impact of traffic enforcement on quality of life?

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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