What is so irritating about it as an argument is that it isn’t really an argument at all. It is more an a prioriassertion. This will save a life and thus it is worth it. Worse, it then casts anyone who demurs as a lover of death and one who is happy to see people killed for the sake of mere convenience or personal pleasure. You are no longer the voice of what is practicable but one cheering on death and destruction.
The Guardian report that Volvo are planning to cap the top speed of their vehicles across the range to 112 mph. I don’t drive a Volvo, but I presume my car, like most cars, can probably hit 150 mph or so. I presume because I’ve never tried. In fact, I find it bemusing that we sell cars with such a top speed. I’ve never driven at 112 mph, so what business I’ve got hitting 150 mph is anybody’s guess. If I were to buy a Volvo, a cap of 112 mph really wouldn’t affect my driving habits in any way whatsoever.
But it was the reasoning behind the move that interested me:
Speeding remained one of the main contributors to road deaths, Volvo said, along with drug and drink intoxication and mobile phone use.
Håkan Samuelsson, Volvo’s president and chief executive, said: “While a speed limitation is not a cure-all, it’s worth doing if we can even save one life. We want to start a conversation about whether carmakers have the right or maybe even an obligation to install technology in cars that changes their driver’s behaviour.”
Now, leaving aside the question of whether capping top speeds to 112 mph will have any effect on driver behaviour, it was the following statement that caught my attention: it’s worth doing if we can even save one life.
I have heard that reasoning in a dozen different scenarios and my reaction is always the same. Is it really worth it if it saves one life? I mean, I could think of hundreds of ways we could save more lives than we do. For example, remove all electrical items and turn off all electrical power to every home in the country. No more home electrocutions. Or drain every reservoir, stream, river and lake in the country so as to avoid drowning. Bound to save some lives that way. In fact, Volvo could go the whole hog and stop producing cars altogether – no danger of death then.
But, of course, in all those scenarios we (rightly) push back that it simply isn’t practicable. Even if the measures would save one life, there are limitations that we do not think are worth doing for the sake of one. There are risks we are prepared to run because the benefit/danger ratio is wide enough that it makes the risk entirely worth taking. The chances of death are slim and the benefits vast enough to make it worth our while risking any potential danger in order to enjoy the benefit. That is why we do, indeed, still have cars on the road, electricity in houses, running water piped into our homes and all the rest. All these things carry some risk but the benefits vastly outstrip them and the chances of those risks coming to pass are small enough to make them worth taking.