Seatbelts, Vaccines & Tradeoffs

Or, Why You Should Avoid Media Hysteria About Case Counts

I promise this will be the only thing I will write directly on the topic of vaccinations/therapeutics and the p*ndemic. I also don’t love the analogy between seatbelts and vaccines as I think it's been used by some midwit commentators to promote really bad ideas, but I use it below for the behavioral and statistical principles underpinning reporting on both.

One of the first things you learn when you dive into economics and psychology is that mandatory seatbelt laws may increase automobile accidents through something called risk compensation (or so the theory goes).

What happens, the typical explanation goes, is that people feel more emboldened to drive recklessly while wearing seatbelts. Or, the converse, that when they don’t wear seatbelts, they’re less-inclined to drive recklessly.

The quirk here is in the tradeoff.

Seatbelt laws increase automobile accidents, but the rate at which those accidents are fatal decreases.

Is it better to have more accidents but fewer of those accidents are fatal, or to have fewer accidents but more of them are fatal?

I’m not an actuary with an insurance company, so I can’t say for certain, but I suspect it’s probably better to live in a world with more accidents but fewer of them being fatal accidents.

All that’s to say that human psychology works in weird ways and you can arrive at pretty much any conclusion you want by paying attention to different statistics. The same is true with vaccinations and case counts in a pandemic.

(I am also, importantly, not saying that this is a case for mandatory vaccinations, as vaccines are a lot more complicated and rife with personal autonomy, rule of law, and complex socio-political questions than seatbelts are. What I am saying is the media & bureaucrats can whip up hysteria by shifting the goalposts to numbers that really don’t matter.)

Avoid Media Hysteria & Dig Into Numbers

What I am saying is that the media can warp the narrative by paying attention to the wrong things.

Imagine this world:

There’s a sudden and unexplained uptick in car accidents, many of which are fatal. Lots of people get killed — but especially the at-risk, like the elderly, the frail, and those more likely to get into car accidents in the first place.

The world shuts down for a few months. Everybody starts driving very, very carefully and is hyper-aware of how carefully they drive — to an absurd degree.

Then, some folks propose wearing seatbelts. This won’t really reduce the number of accidents, but it will decrease the proportion of those accidents that are fatal.

“Hurrah!” those concerned about the auto-accident-pandemic exclaim. “These seatbelts can return us to a sense of normalcy at last.” The seatbelts don’t prevent accidents — they prevent deadly accidents, especially for those who are more likely to die in a car accident. But at the end of the day, that’s what matters, right?

The optimal number of car accidents is not zero because the cost of zero car accidents is far greater than some n > 0 of car accidents in a normally functioning world.

But then those people with the seatbelts start to feel emboldened again. They go back out into the real world and start driving, maybe a bit recklessly compared to how they drove for the past 18 months of this strange auto-accident-pandemic. They get into more accidents. Notably a much smaller percentage of those accidents are fatal and people can get on with their lives. Accidents existed before this strange world of more-fatal-than-usual car accidents and accidents will continue to exist in the future.

In a normal, sane world, people would accept this tradeoff and move on with their lives. In a world with a hyper-numbers driven media (and a political-bureaucrat class that gets more budget from the hysteria), though, there’s an incentive to keep the hysteria going.

So the media starts reporting on the “worrying trend of an uptick in accidents” including even “accidents among those wearing seatbelts!” Sure, some focus on the fatal accidents involving those who choose not to wear seatbelts, but that doesn’t get much more than a few rage-clicks from the seatbelt-obsessed. What really gets clicks and eyeballs and budgets for bureaucrats is stories about people who thought they wouldn’t get into accidents while wearing seatbelts getting into those accidents. Never mind that 90%+ of those accidents are minor fender benders — or even non-accidents like a flat tire.

(The analogy becomes strained here, unfortunately, so you have to imagine a world where bureaucrats and the media incorrectly reported that seatbelts prevent accidents, not just deadly accidents, for the analogy to hold together.)

This process repeats as there’s a push for more seatbelts in cars and outright license suspension for not wearing a seatbelt (rather than the quite effective minor ticket that most jurisdictions give in the real world).

A sane person in this world would take a step back and ask, “wait a second. Why are most of these reports focusing on accidents and not on fatal accidents? Why are so few talking about the costs of zero-accident policies enacted in pseudo-police states like Australia? Isn’t what really matters here serious accidents? Isn’t what really matters avoiding life-changing accidents? It doesn’t matter if there’s an uptick in accidents so long as they’re pretty minor because accidents are a part of life!”

The answer is the incentives faced by the reporting parties — bureaucrats, media organizations, and political parties both for and against — make them report numbers that don’t matter.

The numbers that do matter are purely in the realm of serious auto accidents and those resulting in hospitalization or death. And if you want to introduce the autonomy question, it’s really the percentage of those wearing seatbelts and those who would like to but can’t due to health reasons, that matter. And those numbers are miniscule.

For the normal, sane person in our seatbelt-obsessed world, there really isn’t much he can do to influence these institutions. But he can reclaim his sanity by digging into the numbers, looking at the units being reported and asking what the significance is of those units (versus those not being reported) and weigh the decisions himself about how he ought to go about his life in a world of auto accidents.

Neither rage-tweeting nor stressing yourself into oblivion about case counts or goons at your doors will allow you to better live your life. Give yourself and your cortisol a rest, take a calm look at the numbers that matter and get on with your life.