Trading off Lives

January 2nd, 2024
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Let's say someone proposes that to reduce deaths from overly chaotic airplane evacuations we ban passenger distractions during the most dangerous parts: takeoff and landing. How could we decide whether a ban like this would be worth it?

The argument for the ban is that the safe window for evacuating a plane can be very narrow, and evacuation could potentially go better if everyone were alert. For example, in the 2005 AF358 disaster the plane was completely on fire within ~3min of landing. While I think the benefit of a ban would likely be even smaller, let's assume that global adoption of a ban would cause an average of one fewer person a year to die.

On the other side, there's the cost of ~10min of boredom, for every passenger, on every flight. Instead of playing games, watching movies, or reading, people would mostly be talking, looking out the window, or staring off into space.

One common reaction is to say that on one side of this ledger we have someone's life, while on the other side we have a bit of boredom, so of course we should go with the policy that saves lives. Is there any amount of minor boredom that could equal a life? Many of us have a sense that there are some kinds of tradeoffs that you just shouldn't make, such as accepting deaths in exchange for reducing inconvenience.

If you take that perspective seriously, however, you'll have somewhat fewer deaths and unbearable levels of inconvenience. We could prohibit radios in cars because the music and adjustment can lead to collisions. Set the highway speed limit to 25mph. Ban cars entirely since they're more dangerous than walking and public transport. Require an N95 indoors at all times. Ban paternosters. Limit swimming pools to 3ft deep.

In our normal lives we make these kinds of tradeoff all the time, for example in deciding whether to drive somewhere: you have about a 1 in a million chance of dying ("one micromort") for each 175mi in a car. Thinking through this kind of more normal tradeoff can give better intuitions for approaching more unusual ones like airline policies; let's try that here.

There are ~9B passengers annually, so one fewer death would save the average passenger ~0.0001 micromort at a cost of ~10min of boredom. Is that a good trade? Imagine you were choosing between two potential ~10min car journeys: one being 6mi and one being 200ft shorter but you're not allowed to use your phone, read a book, listen to music, etc. I think nearly everyone would chose the extra 200ft, no?

At one micromort per 175mi, avoiding 200ft saves you ~0.0002 micromorts. This ~2x what we're positing travelers would save by making a similar trade on planes. If you wouldn't give up 10min of reading to save 200ft in a car, it's probably not worth doing to make flight safer either.

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