What is the value of human life?

Trailer/body Builders August 2015 editorial

IN medieval times, we are told, philosophers used to debate the question of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. It was a perplexing question, but it had no objective, quantifiable answer. And except for the other end of the pin, it really had no point.

The story on Page 20 begs a similar question—one that has no ascertainable answer. The difference is that the question this story raises is of utmost importance. What is the value of human life?

In July, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would require underride guards on straight trucks and make more stringent demands for the underride guards installed on new trailers.

For several reasons, back when today’s underride guard regulations were being written, the agency chose to exclude work trucks. But for several other reasons, NHTSA now is proposing to change its mind. Perhaps the most powerful reason: a very effective campaign that convinced NHTSA to reconsider that decision.

Marianne Karth, a mother who lost two daughters in a 2013 trailer underride accident, provided the vision for the campaign. A truck safety advocacy group provided its muscle.

The mom’s story was compelling. She wants to make highways safer so that others would not have to endure the loss that she experienced. The story resonated with newspapers and television stations around the country—and with government regulators.

Last summer NHTSA promised to do something. The action, if approved, would make underride guards mandatory for vehicles that currently are exempt. It would strengthen the regulations for the guards that currently are required, and it would require the use of conspicuity tape to trucks as well as trailers.

Here’s something else it does: raise the question of just how much a human life is worth.

The Department of Transportation guidelines call for the projected cost of proposed regulations to be $9.1 million or less per life saved. According to NHTSA’s projections, the proposal would save fewer than eight lives per year—at a cost of more than $106 million each.

Yet the proposal is moving forward because of a powerful campaign waged by a mother who lost two daughters.

Please know that this is not being written by someone who does not care about accident victims. In one of life’s ironies, this month’s editorial about truck safety is being composed in the intensive care waiting room at Brackenridge Hospital in Austin, Texas. Yesterday, a few miles from here, our son was driving along a toll road that has an 85-mph speed limit. A motorist who had just finished changing a flat tire on the shoulder of the road pulled immediately in front of him. Our son swerved and successfully avoided the car, but according to accident investigators, his vehicle subsequently rolled over at least four times. His heroic effort saved the life of the person who pulled out in front of him. And a miracle saved the life of our son.

He has now endured multiple surgeries in the past 24 hours. To relieve swelling in his shattered left arm, doctors have sliced it open from the wrist to the middle of the bicep and plan to leave it that way over the next couple of days. They will gradually sew it back together as the swelling subsides. He is expected to stay in intensive care four more days and remain hospitalized for the next two weeks.

His three young children want to know when their daddy will come home. There is a chance he may never fully recover. But unlike the tragedy that led the recent underride guard proposal, our son’s accident will not generate any public outcry. Yes, a local television showed a brief video that someone shot with a cell phone, but other local news outlets ignored it. This case merely involved a couple of four-wheelers. Nobody died at the hands of a killer truck.

But the Karth story resonates. We now have a proposal that will cost $106 million to save a life. But if you think about it, the proposal actually undervalues human life. Why? Because it does not save enough lives. And the reason it isn’t saving enough lives is that it doesn’t address the root cause of most fatal accidents. Yes, the Karth girls tragically died in an underride accident, but it was driver error that caused the underride. And it was driver error that has our son in intensive care right now.

NHTSA has published two major proposals this summer aimed at the commercial truck and trailer industry. Combined, the greenhouse gas proposal and now the new underride guard rules are almost 1,500 pages long. Yet how many traffic accidents will these rules prevent? You can count the projected reduction of fatalities on your fingers. You can count the reduced traffic accidents on your fist.

Most accidents are caused by driver error. Without the accidents, we don’t have fatalities or injuries. So how can NHTSA help us as a nation substantially reduce driver errors? It’s perplexing—a modern “angels on a head of a pin” question. But it isn’t pointless. Good answers to this question will save lives. ♦

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