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The Cost of a Human Life

Fifteen years ago, a friend of mine died in an auto accident. He ran a stop sign on a rural road and hit a big truck.

Rural communities have too many residents who don’t believe the literal interpretation of stop signs. When approaching a rural intersection, they look both ways; they stop only if they see another vehicle coming. Nearly all the time, this works out fine. But every once in a while, that oncoming vehicle is not seen with a quick look. Any traffic engineer will tell us that a full stop means the driver takes a better look.

At the funeral, no one mentioned that my friend had a reputation for being an aggressive driver. He was always in a hurry to get somewhere, so stop signs and speed limits were something to ignore. But the funeral was not the right time to mention these things. Besides, he had been driving for 33 years with no serious accident.

Unfortunately, we can’t talk sense to these people. Only when they are close to losing their driver’s license do they reluctantly stop driving on the edge.

My friend was 49 years old. He had a good trade with a good income. Potentially, he had another 15 years of being a valuable contributor to the economy.

So if we can’t change the hearts of aggressive drivers, we should still plan for them, right?

Here’s how we could have saved his life as he continued his aggressive style of driving. Let’s put a cloverleaf exchange on that rural intersection. That would have saved his life, right? He could have sailed on through with no worries about any oncoming traffic. He would have lived to be an old man and paid a lot more taxes.

The trouble is that these intersections cost about $10m to build—much more than the current solution of a couple of stop signs. And cloverleafs have a lot more maintenance. 

If all lives are so important, what we have basically said is that my friend’s life is worth something less than $10m. Otherwise we would have built the cloverleaf.

Right now, I can hear some readers denouncing my idea of putting an economic value on a human life. How barbaric! How callous! How cruel! How cold! Yep, I sure have put a target on my back for the politically correct cops. I am defenseless against their railings.

With Covid-19, it seems the world does not have enough medical devices known as “ventilators.” These machines will assist the very sick with breathing until their immune system beats back the virus. Medical people have been warning us for years that pandemics are part of the future. It makes sense that governments should have a warehouse or two of these devices ready to hand out when the pandemic starts.

But it seems no country did anything like that. In essence, we have put a value on human life—even if nobody really said so.

Just imagine if a national government had said 10 years ago: “Let’s see what it costs to buy 100,000 of these units and store them for an emergency. If the mathematicians say these 100,000 ventilators could save 500,000 lives in a pandemic and the accountants says it will cost $20m to buy and store these devices, then we can compare the value of those lives to the cost of this equipment.

Now do you see what I have just done? I have put another value on human life. How terrible! How cruel! How uncompassionate! Dave is such a monster! But I’m ignoring your rants while I’m doing some basic arithmetic. Let’s see: divide $20m by 500,000; it costs $40 to save a life.

But because we are too moral to put a value on a human life, we did not come to the right decision.

Did we?

Published on Medium 2020

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