An interesting question was posed by Paul Clarke on Thursday on Twitter: what is the acceptable number of cyclist deaths in London per annum? I believe it was in response to cyclists calling for safety improvements following the death of a cyclist on Bishopsgate that same day.
It brought to mind a similar question I’d posed earlier: what would be an acceptable bonus for the CEO of a UK bank? In both cases, anything positive causes some degree of outcry.
But more importantly, it brought me back to an argument I’ve discussed many a time. What is the acceptable cost of safety?
Some people I speak to believe every accident is preventable and should be prevented. This, to me, is a ludicrous statement. Just as no IT system can guarantee 100% uptime, no mode of transport can guarantee that accidents will never happen.
Safety in any mode of transport can be improved. But with improvement comes cost. For many modes of transport, that cost is passed on to the customer directly.
The Boeing 747 has 0.71 crashes involving one or more deaths for every million flights (across all of its 19m flights). (As an side, the Airbus 320 range is the safest of the big players—those with over 10m flights—with only 0.10 such crashes per million flights.)
That 0.71 can be reduced. Further security checks can be introduced at airports to reduce the incidence of bombs and hijackers on board. A worldwide ban could be introduced on flying through turbulent air. The entirety of each aircraft could be checked thoroughly before each flight, and any parts showing the slightest degradation could prompt their immediate replacement.
In reducing that figure to 0.35, say, the cost of a return ticket from London to New York might increase from £400 to £4,000. A further reduction to 0.18 might increase it further to £40,000. These numbers are made up, but the order of magnitude increases are probably not far off the mark.
Those people calling for the safety improvements might cut back on their transatlantic jaunts when they hear of the associated cost hike. Indeed transatlantic flight would disappear overnight—one way of guaranteeing 100% safety, I guess.
When airlines talk of safety being of the utmost importance, they generally mean this within certain market constraints.
The cost of cycling is different. Instead of cyclists paying directly for their journeys, everyone pays for their facilities through taxation. Assuming 500,000 cyclists (there are 480,000 daily journeys, apparently), and ignoring the cost of the original road construction, the Cycle Superhighways would have cost each cyclist approximately £120. I’m guessing that they would not have been willing to pay for this, nor would they be willing to pay directly to implement further safety improvements.
If it costs more per death saved than it would cost the NHS to save a life, should the money be diverted instead to the NHS? (A reminder of the trolley problem: should you actively sacrifice someone’s life if you know it will save five other people’s lives?)
Sixteen cyclists were killed on London’s roads in 2011. The highest such figure was 33 in 1989, the lowest: eight in 2004. What is an acceptable number? And what is the acceptable cost of achieving that?