Friday, December 01, 2006

Emeritus professor of geography suggests banning seatbelts

Perhaps the Emirates should ban seatbelts in order to give drivers the incentive to drive more safely. After all, people respond to incentives.

If there's one thing we know about our risky world, it's that seat belts save lives, right? And they do, of course. But reality, as usual, is messier and more complicated than that. John Adams, risk expert and emeritus professor of geography at University College London, was an early skeptic of the seat belt safety mantra. Adams first began to look at the numbers more than 25 years ago. What he found was that contrary to conventional wisdom, mandating the use of seat belts in 18 countries resulted in either no change or actually a net increase in road accident deaths.

How can that be? Adams' interpretation of the data rests on the notion of risk compensation, the idea that individuals tend to adjust their behavior in response to what they perceive as changes in the level of risk. Imagine, explains Adams, a driver negotiating a curve in the road. Let's make him a young male. He is going to be influenced by his perceptions of both the risks and rewards of driving a car. The considerations could include getting to work or meeting a friend for dinner on time, impressing a companion with his driving skills, bolstering his image of himself as an accomplished driver. They could also include his concern for his own safety and desire to live to a ripe old age, his feelings of responsibility for a toddler with him in a car seat, the cost of banging up his shiny new car or losing his license. Nor will these possible concerns exist in a vacuum. He will be taking into account the weather and the condition of the road, the amount of traffic and the capabilities of the car he is driving. But crucially, says Adams, this driver will also be adjusting his behavior in response to what he perceives are changes in risks. If he is wearing a seat belt and his car has front and side air bags and anti-skid brakes to boot, he may in turn drive a bit more daringly.

The point, stresses Adams, is that drivers who feel safe may actually increase the risk that they pose to other drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians and their own passengers (while an average of 80% of drivers buckle up, only 68% of their rear-seat passengers do).
No mention in the article that economists have being making this argument for some time.

For another example of unintended consequences Newmark's Door points us to this essay by economist Lowell Gallaway:
The upshot of the Griggs decision was to place employers in the position of being presumed guilty of job discrimination if they used ability tests to screen applicants, unless they could prove themselves innocent by showing that the pre-employment test they used had a manifest relationship to the performance of the job in question. In the Supreme Court’s view, since cognitive ability tests appeared to have a more adverse impact on minority workers than on others, their use was presumptively discriminatory.

Duke Power had also established a requirement that applicants for most jobs had to have a high school diploma. The Court also ruled that this requirement was illegal unless the employer could prove that having finished high school was necessary to the work.
. . .
One approach [for employers] would be to turn to an alternative indicator of ability. While the Court would not accept an overt requirement for a high school diploma, nothing in Griggs prevents potential employees from including their educational accomplishments in their resumes. And nothing prevents employers from reading those resumes. Thus, employers could behave as if they were imposing an educational requirement without formally doing so.

That strategy also has its difficulties, chiefly that it might still lead to a “disparate impact” on the employment of minorities. A solution would be to have a quota hiring system for minorities and beyond that rely on educational credentials to help sort out job applicants. In effect, the cost of affirmative action hires is treated as an additional fixed cost of doing business.

It appears that many employers have pursued that strategem. What are its consequences? The answer depends on how individuals seeking employment behave. Would they become aware that employers were still quietly using education credentials? Would they observe that others with whom they were competing had greater success if they had impressive educational certificates? Given the abundance of publicity emphasizing the positive association of levels of education with employment success, it seems highly likely that they would become so aware. At least, there would develop a widespread belief that it is in each individual’s interest to acquire educational credentials – and the higher the better.
. . .
Under the old regime of ability testing, which probably did a better job of identifying workers with the desired abilities, people didn’t need to spend years of their lives and huge amounts of money just to obtain a piece of paper. Griggs played a major role in catalyzing the current mania for educational credentials.
The argument has a connection to Emiratization.



Blogger secretdubai said...

Yes - this happened with the Oxford entrance exam. It was banned through left-wing student union pressure because it was seen as discriminating against state school pupils who couldn't be "coached" for the exams by their teachers, like private school pupils were.

The reality was that the examiners were well aware of coaching and knew what they were looking for: the exam wasn't about a perfect score or rote learning, but original thought. But it was banned, making the only entry to Oxford through a face to face interview (even more intimidating for more shy pupils; the exam offered anonymity and no need to travel, whereas the interview took place in a confronting situation far from home, plus private school pupils were generally coached for interviews anyway, often by their ex-Oxbridge teachers) and then a near perfect score at A-levels (an exam which private school pupils find it more easy to score highly on than state school pupils, because they get "better" teaching - more resources, smaller classes, and so forth).

The exam ban effectively made the situation far more traumatic and more challenging for those it was designed to help.

11:57 PM  

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