Friday, December 02, 2005

Am I going to die?

This ABC News article discusses the deadly nature of push-locomotive trains. Or are they really that deadly, intrinsically? In the case of the tragedy this January, I do not blame the nature of the train when ten passengers died. I blame the person who murdered them by parking his SUV on the tracks, and may he be convicted and executed.

If we're so concerned about transportation safety, let's ban such trains, and while we're at it, let's mandate 10-foot hoods and trunks for all cars to greatly eliminate injuries and deaths. It does not matter that either would make both forms of travel prohibitively expensive for many people, because we're dealing with safety and people's lives, right? Some say we can't put a price on safety, or that we must spend whatever is necessary to save just one more human life (as economists would put it, one life at the margin). But in reality, we do put an effective price on our safety every day. We may not be able to calculate what our total safety is worth, but we have a good idea of what a marginal improvement in our safety is not worth.

With modern travel, more and more people can afford to travel to better jobs. We could always spend more on safety, but it would make the travel more expensive for everyone, and likely unaffordable to some. If there is one economic lesson everyone should learn, it is that we always make tradeoffs. Nothing comes without a price, even picking up "free" money on the sidewalk. It's said to be lucky to pick up a penny, but I wouldn't even bother with a fifty-cent piece. Coins on the ground are so dirty, and I don't value them enough to risk contact with microorganisms or wash them off. For a few people, finding even a $100 bill might divert them from a critical moment that they should have spent talking to their stockbroker, because they could have gained more than $100 (or not lost $100).

Tradeoffs are especially important when it comes to safety and how much we spend to get it. At a certain point, we will value the marginal cost of increased safety as greater than its marginal benefit, and thus we won't pay it. I could have bought my car with side airbags as well as front, but I did not find that worth the greater cost and so bought a cheaper model. Some trains don't change direction (i.e. they pull in one direction, then push when going back) because the passengers prefer those to the more expensive alternative: additional track so such trains can turn around makes them more costly, and the necessary fare increases would price some people out. Costs are not always monetary, either. A jaywalker implicitly decides that the extra time of going to a crosswalk, and waiting for the light, is more costly than the risk of bodily harm, death or a ticket. Driving an automobile implicitly means that not having the convenience or pleasure is more costly than the risk of getting into an accident.

When riding the Metro-North Railroad down to Manhattan, usually for work, I almost always ride express trains, and those are always push-trains. Sometimes I ride in the front car, mainly because I enter the platform on the south end. If it's a busy morning, I might walk to the middle of the platform where there are fewer people, and get on a middle car so that I don't have to fight for a seat. Regardless, this ABC article will not encourage me to find a seat toward the back of the train, for the same reason I don't avoid the NYC subway system because of possible terrorist attacks. I will not let highly improbable events make me so paranoid that I will plan my life around such threats.

The Teamster leader says he has warned about push-trains for years, but that's like Paul Krugman predicting one economic Armageddon after another, or people who predicted from 1919 through 2003 that the Red Sox would win the World Series. If you keep making the same prediction about an event with greater than zero probability, eventually it will happen. However, who could have predicted someone would be so callous as to chicken out on committing suicide, and lead to ten people dying?

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