Sunday, 11 January 2009

How Much is a Life Worth?

I've decided to gen up on the whole 'road safety' issue in preparation for some searching questions about why so many people are getting killed and injured on our roads here in Cycling City. As you might expect it's not the most engaging reading and one suspects that it is presented in as dry a way as possible to avoid emotive responses. A road safety vocabulary and jargon has evolved to avoid terms like killing or maiming or crippling. Instead they talk about fatalities and KSIs (killed and seriously injured).

Despite the jargon there's much food for thought there. One thing that struck me as particularly curious is how they value of a person's life or well being is determined in order to show whether road safety measures are justified or not (I did say it was dry stuff). You may shudder at the thought of your life being so precisely valued, but it would be stupid to spend say £1 million on a measure likely to save one life every ten years and then have no funds left to spend on another measure that would save one life per year, so it seems these sorts of calculations have to be made.

So we find under the Road Safety Economics heading of Bristol's Road Casualty Review that the Department for Transport give us figures for the value of saving a life which vary according to the type of road. On urban roads a life is worth £1.55 million but on a motorway a life is worth £1.75 million - 13% more. The difference is even more pronounced for slight injuries, worth paying £18k to avoid on urban roads but almost £26k on motorways - 41% more.

Why is the health and safety of motorway users worth so much more than users of urban roads? Could it be that people killed or injured on urban roads are more likely to be pedestrians or cyclists rather than motorists? Are the lives of pedestrians and cyclists judged to be worth less than those of motorists, perhaps because they are likely to be less economically productive? I've some more digging to do on this, but I don't like the sound of it one bit.


onthelevelblog said...

We studied this in my transport planning course- see

You'll find a lot of this stuff in NATA- the new approach to appraisal (of transport projects)


DonaQixota said...

Yes, we mustn't go getting all emotive about killing, must we. This is, after all, the price of progress.

"Annually, 1.2 million people die and an additional 50 million people are injured" worldwide.

And to think that the vast majority of these poor sods, who live in a impoverished countries, will not even be allowed a decent cost benefit analysis for their losses.

Tony D said...

The use of jargon like KSI is used for the same reason as military terms like "soft targets", "neutralise", "friendly fire" and so on. It cynically removes any sense of the human life being referred to. Road traffic victims are no longer real people with lives, futures, and families, they are KSIs - some remotely abstract concept which can be costed for and the value then used to weigh up the benefits; such as whether to build a new ring road that allows somebody to travel 6 minutes quicker from one side of the city to the other.

It is a similar approach to that taken by an American economist who calculated that one American life was worth 15 Indian lives, or the Newspapers and TV screens that gave 50 times as much coverage to the O J Simpson trial than to the war in Darfur that cost 400,000 lives.

Welcome to our civilised society.

elizabeth said...

Lord Robertson told the UN last year that the majority of people being admitted to hospitals in the developing world had been run over. Naturally this interesting fact was not taken up by journalists and broadcasters for further investigation or comment.

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