Seven Angels Should Remind Us of Our Priorities

January 01, 1996  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Airbags

(Fox River Grove, Illinois) It’s called "Seven Angels Crossing" now. As I write this, it’s still blocked off. Wreaths of flowers lie next to a light pole at the track. Marquees in the area express the sentiments of local businesses: "Our thoughts are with you," "Our prayers go out to you," "Pray for the families," "Seven angels, now in heaven." And everywhere there are the blue and white ribbons that used to simply be the colors of Cary-Grove High School but now mean so much more. In late October, a commuter train slammed into a bus here, killing five children more or less immediately. Two more died in the hospital. To say that everyone in the towns of Cary and Fox River Grove was touched by the killings sounds cliche, yet it is true. I have friends here. Their own children are too young to be in high school, but the boy across the street from them was killed and the brother of a girl who plays with their children was injured. And everyone is asking the same question: "Why?" Current attention is focusing on the signal lights at the crossing, and the crossing itself. It turns out that in the two-year period before the accident, some 45 complaints were filed with Illinois and railroad transportation officials over the crossing and the lights, though whether that proves an exceptional number has yet to be seen. If it turns out it was an unusually hazardous crossing yet nothing was done about it, this will prove to a great extent to be business as usual. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Americans’ attitudes towards risk in the years I’ve written about the subject, it is that they don’t really understand it. The relationship between that which we should fear and that which we do fear is often tenuous at best. This goes likewise for expenditures to reduce risks. Thus, for example, under a 1991 EPA drinking water regulation, we spend $653 million per premature death averted. A 1988 hazardous waste land disposal ban of the EPA costs $4.19 billion. An asbestos occupational exposure limit laid down in 1986 cost business $71 million per life while one for arsenic cost $74 million. These are not the highest figures I could find, nor the lowest. Suffice to say that saving lives through environmental regulation is routinely measured in the millions per person. By comparison, expenditures that would prevent accidental deaths come relatively cheap. Since we don’t know yet what went wrong here in Fox River Grove, we can’t put a price on fixing it. But a Harvard Center for Risk Analysis publication puts the price of installing flashing lights at railway crossings that don’t yet have them at a mere $733,523 per life saved. Add gates to that and you’re still looking at only $787,267. "It is an enigma," Book of Risks author Larry Laudan told me, that a society that allows so many risky activities in terms of accidents will, "at the same time, demand the expenditures of tens of billions of dollars [over $115 billion, actually] annually on pollution control measures." Drunk drivers alone, Laudan said, "do far more harm in producing injuries and death than all known sources of pollution. The ultimate irony is that it is not even clear that pollution abatement efforts always do much good." The explanation, perhaps, says Laudan, "is the remarkable success of the environmental movement in persuading us that pollution is one of the principal killers of Americans." He also cites "the unthinking fear that invisible dangers induce. Like radiation, pollution generally cannot be seen or felt. By contrast, most causes of accidents are tangible and palpable — even familiar. Psychologists repeatedly have shown that this sort of familiarity breeds indifference, if not contempt." Fumento and friend realized the risks and the priorities of the Pacific Coast’s Highway 1.

Often we find out too late that society’s familiarity and contempt becomes the undoing of us or our loved ones. I found out three years ago when my car went careening off a cliff just south of Big Sur on California’s notorious Pacific Coast Highway. The car rolled several times before coming to a halt 350 feet down, just short of the rocks at the edge of the water. Despite wearing a seat belt, my girlfriend broke her skull and neck and I was told she would probably die. I didn’t feel so good myself. The good news is that we both survived and are doing fine, thank you. The bad news is that when I went back to the accident site I found it marked by a cross for a young man whose car had also gone over but who hadn’t been so lucky. When I inquired at the state Department of Transportation to find out how much a guardrail at this literal dead man’s curve would have cost, I was told $1,000. But in this, the most environmentally conscious and most environmental regulation-happy state in the country, there was no $1,000 to spare for a guard rail. Of course, environmental regulatory costs are buried — passed on to private businesses — while guard rails require explicit tax expenditures. But eventually, we pay for both A rich country can afford adequate rail crossings, guard rails, and good environmental laws. But no country can afford indiscriminate spending inspired by political activists instead of by careful cost-benefit analyses. Let’s stop finding out the hard way what our priorities should be. I know seven sets of parents whom I think would want it that way.