Last week I wrote a pithy little article about my experience driving a Suzuki Cappuccino, a 660 CC kei car, when I was teaching in Japan. I followed the discussion that resulted with some interest and one of my favorite contributors and fellow motorcycle enthusiast, Syke, raised and interesting issue when he wrote: “I’d happily sign whatever paperwork necessary exempting myself (and my heirs) from personal injury lawsuits, or whatever other crap the lawyers can come up with, to own one. The impossibility of getting such cars is just another example of what a country full of cringing wimps we’ve become.” It’s something I have thought a lot about over the last few days and to me it comes down to a simple question: Should the government have a role in setting safety standards?
My own understanding of market theory may not be perfect, so this is a chance for TTAC’s best and brightest, many of whom may be much more versed on the subject than I, to educate us. As I am a common man, I would imagine that my understanding of market theory is typical so let’s use it to begin the discussion and see where it goes from there. In my mind, it goes something like this: If most consumers want safety features in their cars then they will elect not to buy cars that lack those features or will pay an added premium for them. In either case, the manufacturers will recognize that they are losing money on some products and making money on others and react to supply people with the best cars to fit the consumers’ desires. The market, then, determines the best way.
The problem arises when the government decides to stick its nose into industry’s business. The government uses a pool of bureaucrats, many of whom are experts in their respective fields, and when they determine there is a problem, say too many people are dying in car crashes, they create a regulation that mandates industry changes. In the late 50s, for example, the government responded to car crash data by mandating that seatbelts, an early version of which was first patented as far back as 1885, become standard equipment in all cars. By all accounts, most people back then saw little value in seat belts and promptly stuffed them into the crack under the seat back so the government then responded with an education campaign and, eventually, laws that mandated seat belt use by a car’s occupants. The end result is more tickets, more annoyance and, incidentally, more lives saved.
But the government didn’t stop there. They mandated other safety regulations, implemented crash tests and have applied so many regulations to the construction of cars that some people see it as a bar to innovation. Today even the cheapest cars have a veritable arsenal of safety devices intended to keep your fragile body from being rent and torn apart by the impacts of a crash. The downside is that the simple, “unsafe” vehicles so many of us remember from the days of our youths, the open dune buggies, the Baja bugs, the two seat roadsters and the stripped down muscle cars are gone. Because of regulation, cars have grown on the outside and offer less interior space, have thicker A pillars that impede our view from the driver’s seat and lots of buzzers, whistles and warning lights to electronically bitch us into submission lest we fail to comply with the mandates of safety.
My own position is somewhere in the middle. I don’t necessarily like being so tightly regulated but if the recent hard economic times have taught me anything it’s that I don’t trust industry and the market to give a crap about the likes of me and mine when there is a dollar to be made at my expense. I wonder though, are we now, as Syke so eloquently states, “a country full of cringing wimps?” Did we trade away our heritage for safety and security? Does regulation have a place and, if so, how do we strike a balance? I don’t have the answers but perhaps you do. I’d like to hear your thoughts.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.