As flights resume, how dangerous is it to fly through a volcanic ash cloud? Driving could actually be a lot more dangerous, says Julian Baggini.
"The safety of air passengers is of paramount importance." So spoke Gordon Brown this week, defending the flight restrictions that have been put in place due to the volcanic ash cloud.
And could he really have said anything else? Has any leader every claimed that the safety of the people is his second priority?
However, the ethics of risk is not as straightforward as the rhetoric of "paramount importance" suggests. People talk of the "precautionary principle" or "erring on the side of caution" but governments are always trading safety for convenience or other gains.
For instance, 30mph speed limits on motorways would increase road safety, but almost no-one is advocating them. Lord Adonis, the transport minister, would sound callous if he said slowing cars down is too high a price to pay to save a few hundred lives per year, but that is precisely the rationale for the policy.
In this respect, governments are only behaving as we all do.
We take risks all the time, and safety is never allowed to trump all other concerns. The under 30s could eliminate one of their single biggest risks of death at a stroke if they never got into a car, but virtually all consider the inconvenience too high a price to pay.
The problem is that people are generally terrible at making rational decisions about risk.
To take just one of many examples, many Americans avoided planes after 9/11 and travelled by road instead. As a result, a team of researchers from Cornell University estimated there were at least 1,200 more deaths on America's roads than there would have been.
Some 1,200 people died because they were avoiding what they perceived to be a riskier form of transport, 954 more than who died on the planes used for the terrorist attacks.
But governments have to choose on our behalf which risks we should be exposed to.
Should politicians act like concerned parents?
That poses a difficult ethical dilemma: should government decisions about risk reflect the often irrational foibles of the populace or the rational calculations of sober risk assessment? Should our politicians opt for informed paternalism or respect for irrational preferences?
The volcanic ash cloud is a classic case study. Were the government to allow flights to go ahead when the risks were equal to those of road travel, it is almost certain that, over the course of the year, hundreds of people would die in resulting air accidents, since around 2,500 die on the roads each year.
This is politically unimaginable, not for good, rational reasons, but because people are much more risk averse when it comes to plane travel than they are to driving their own cars.
So, in practice, governments do not make fully rational risk assessments. Their calculations are based partly on cost-benefit analyses, and partly on what the public will tolerate.
This means that that the price placed on a human life by different policies varies enormously. For example, the Train Protection and Warning System put in place after the Ladbroke Grove disaster cost £15.4m per life it has estimated to have saved.
What price a life?
On the other hand, when the US government allowed speed limits of freeways to be increased to 65mph, dividing the extra dollars earned due to efficiency gains by the number of lives lost resulted in a price of $1.54m (about £1m) per life.
In other words, one policy spent £15.4m pounds to save one life and the other sacrificed one life to generate an extra £1m for the economy.
There's a widespread feeling that it is immoral to put a price on a human life, but in practice governments can't make informed risk decisions without doing so, and we often implicitly support them. For instance, the cost effectiveness of drugs supplied by the NHS is determined in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice).
Nice, usually determines a treatment not to be value for money if it costs more than £20,000-£30,000 per quality-adjusted life year (QALY) saved.
This seems absurdly small to many people, who would pay every last penny they had just to secure one QALY. But if any party went into this election proposing to double National Insurance contributions to double the value Nice puts on a QALY, I don't think many would vote for it.
We may not like to admit it, but we too think there is such a thing as putting too much value on a human life.
One iPad or two lives saved in the developing world - about $500
Indeed, you could argue that we all often value a life at less than £160. Research by the philosopher Peter Singer suggests the cost of saving a life in the developing world ranges from around $250 (about £160) - $3,500 (£2,270).
Faced with the choice between risking someone's life in Africa and an optional new gadget, we routinely choose the latter.
What then is a government to do?
On the one hand, the most rational policy is to do whatever will be most effective in reducing risks. On the other, it is more democratic to take only the kinds of risks the populace is willing to take, valuing lives lost in the developing world less than lives lost on the road, which are in turn valued less than those lost in the air.
So which is more ethical, the rational or the democratic choice? I'll leave that for you to decide. You can be pretty sure, however, that as the government weighs up the rational and with public opinion in the case of the current flying restrictions, the latter will weigh more heavily than the former. That's democracy.
Julian Baggini is the author of Do They Think You're Stupid?: 100 Ways of Spotting Spin and Nonsense from the Media, Celebrities and Politicians (Granta)
Below is a selection of your comments
Finally a little common sense on this issue. How hard can it be to see that spending fifteen million to save a life is an utter waste of money when we have rationed health care and people are dying for lack of drugs or operations. A pox on the "if it just saves one life" brigade.
Ian Nartowicz, Stockport, England
There's another factor to consider. No insurance company will cover an airline if they see any increased risk - and certainly not flying against official advice. Remember the governments had to step in after 9/11. Increased insurance costs and tighter conditions are making many previously informal events impossible to organise. It's not the individual or the operating company who can take a position on risk however rational, it is dictated by governments and the insurance industry.
The article suggests that we are irrational for being much more risk averse when it comes to flying than we are when driving cars but there is a fundamental difference between the two. When driving a car, people have some measure of control over the risks they experience and, in the worst case, there is always the option of pulling to the side of the road and stopping. When you fly, you have essentially no control over the risks and the pilot has no option to just park the plane and stop if he feels things are getting too dangerous at 36,000ft.
If your engine stops in a car you can pull over to the side, not an option in a plane. Also, you lose not only propulsion but hydraulics, electrical, and possibly instrumentation. One certainty is that you are coming down - and pretty fast.
Ron Clarke, Northampton, Northamptonshire
I was present at a road safety meeting with a country council who were considering the value of investing £650,000 in a road safety scheme. They were told that if it saved 'just one life' it would save £1.56m. One councillor pointed out that this cost saving would actually be to the whole of society, rather than their authority and therefore this was misleading. Life is important then, and saving lives can even provide a cost-saving; just as long as it goes back into *your* budget.
Kevin Chambers, Anon, England
I remember The Goons' sketch showing them each stepping high over an imaginary tripwire, telling each other: "You can't be too careful."
Tony Wood, Farnborough, Hampshire, UK
Isn't this comparing chalk with cheese? I can't remember any road accident in the UK causing 100deaths or more. In the event of a plane crash especially on a heavily populated area deathswould be hundreds, casualties perhaps thousands. The "additional" deaths after 9/11 are I see estimates which could be wildly under or over reality. There are times when people wish to take control of their own lives. By car, they are doing so, but taking 100 passengers into the air without due regard to those below is not.
Isn't it just that we all value the lives of those we know and love as higher than the "unknown stranger"?
Claire, Surrey, UK
There's a further issue on the relative safety of driving - the authorities know full well that there are many reasons for road accidents - statistically the highest single factor is falling asleep, while failing to maintain a safe gap to the vehicle in front is another. Some accidents are even caused by driving too slowly. Then there are many unnecessary deaths caused by failure to wear seatbelts. However because it would cost a huge amount to monitor every driver for sleepiness, or to check that everyone is wearing a belt or leaving a safe distance, the authorities effectively ignore those issues and concentrate on the only problem where they have the technology to monitor it cheaply - speeding. This means there's a complete disconnect between money spent vs the real causes of road deaths and injuries.
Interesting article that highlights the fact that decisions that truly affect our lives are more and more often decided with an economic aspect to the equation. It is an illusion that our government actually 'care' about our lives as individuals - as the u-uturn in policy about the volcanic ash has demonstrated.
Ben Skinner , Leeds
Very insightful article. Thanks for pointing out the very uncomfortable truth about our irrational priorities - and the very considerable shortfalls of democracy, even if it's the best system we've got so far.
Norm Beers, Windsor