From overreaction to overreach

John Hood - Contributing Columnist

John Hood

Contributing Columnist

Should regulators require child-safety locks on stepladders?

Such a rule would have been a real problem at the Hood abode years ago when my boys were little. At the time, there were a couple of different folding ladders that got transported from room to room throughout the day, allowing the Little Rascals access to videotapes (remember those?), action figures, model cannons, Pop Tarts and other essentials of modern life.

But according to a recent report, more people in North Carolina die from falls in their homes than they do from such hazards as fires, drownings or the discharge of firearms. The risk isn’t limited to the elderly, so don’t jump to conclusions: falls are also one of the leading causes of injuries to children under the age of 14.

So why not require some kind of lock or other device to keep young children and the infirm from mounting a stepladder? Because that would be impractical and silly, you might say. Because such a rule might even put more people in danger, since those deterred from using a ladder to reach a great height would probably use whatever else they could find to accomplish the task — some precarious tower of boxes or chairs that might make a fall more likely.

You might also point out that while falls may represent one of the single-greatest safety hazards one might encounter in a home, the chance of being seriously injured or killed by a fall is still remote.

All of these arguments are valid. They also apply to other panicky governmental overreactions.

For example, years ago Congress required pills to be placed in bottles with childproof caps. You can understand why. Every year, some children were sickened or even killed by ingesting multiple pills they found in their parents’ medicine cabinet. Unfortunately, as economist Kip Viscusi later established with carefully empirical study, the first round of childproof caps actually coincided with increases in overall poisonings.

One explanation was that older people who took a lot of medicine found it difficult to work the caps and got in the habit of just leaving the caps off entirely. Another reason was a “lulling effect” on parents who took fewer precautions to keep their children out of medicine cabinets.

Think that mandating safety devices on automobiles represents an unalloyed improvement in traffic safety? Think again. There is a well-established phenomenon in these cases — called risk compensation or homeostasis by experts — in which drivers, knowing that they are surrounded by more protection or equipped with more safety devices, tend to drive a bit more recklessly. This can offset, partially or fully, the safety benefits of the regulation.

I trust I don’t need to spend a lot of time explaining why gun control might make at least some people less safe. By now, the arguments surely sound familiar.

North Carolina is a concealed-carry state. Crime and homicide rates are lower today than they were when the statute was enacted. Perhaps they would have fallen even more if North Carolinians weren’t carrying concealed weapons, but it is certainly plausible — and there is, once again, empirical evidence pointing in this direction — that the policy deters some crimes by communicating to potential criminals that their victims could be armed and ready to respond with deadly force.

By the way, those who try to tally up the risks and rewards of gun availability by counting the number of times guns are fired in self-defense vs. in accidental injuries or deaths are engaging in statistical silliness. Guns are the most effective in enhancing our safety when they are not being fired. So to examine only cases in which guns are discharged is to seek an answer to the wrong question.

Freeing our lives from risk is impossible. Our goals should be to identify, manage and minimize risk. The next time you hear someone mourn a tragic loss of life and pontificate about how “there ought to be a law,” express sympathy but then diplomatically ask him what his position is on stepladder regulation.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative public policy think tank. Follow him on Twitter @JohnHoodNC.

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