Opinion: Daily Journal

The First Step to Over-Regulation

RALEIGH – Should state regulators require child-safety locks on stepladders?

That would be a real problem at the Hood abode. There are a couple of different folding ladders that get transported from room to room throughout the day, allowing the Little Conqueror and the Little General easy access to videotapes, model cannons, Pop Tarts, and other essentials of modern life.

But according to a new report, more people in North Carolina die from falls in their homes than they do from other hazards such as poisons, fires, drownings, and the discharge of a firearm. Falls made up about a third of all accidental deaths in the home, far more than any other single cause. The risk wasn’t limited to the elderly, so don’t jump to conclusions: falls were also the leading cause of injuries to children under the age of 14.

So why not require some kind of device to keep young children and the infirm from mounting a stepladder? Because that would be impractical and silly, you say. Because it might even put more people in danger, since those deterred from using a ladder to reach a great height will use whatever else they can find, some precarious tower of boxes or chairs that will make a fall more likely. Because even though falls may represent the single-greatest safety hazard in the home, the chance of being seriously injured or killed is still remote.

All of those arguments are valid. They also apply to other panicky governmental over-reactions.

For example, years ago Congress required pills to be placed in bottles with child-proof caps. Unfortunately, as economist Kip Viscusi later established with data, childproof caps increased the risk of childhood poisonings. You see, older people who took a lot of medicine find it difficult to work the caps and got in the habit of just leaving the caps off the bottles entirely. That made them easier for children to discover and get into.

Think that mandating safety devices on automobiles represents an unalloyed improvement in traffic safety? Think again. There is a well-established phenomenon in these cases – often called risk compensation or homeostasis – in which drivers, knowing that they are surrounded by more protection or equipped with more safety devices, tend to drive a bit more recklessly. This can offset, partially or fully, the safety benefits of the regulation.

I trust I don’t need to spend a lot of time explaining why gun control makes people less safe. North Carolina is, fortunately, a concealed-carry state, and has thus experienced the crime-reduction effect that many other jurisdictions have enjoyed by making it clear to potential criminals that their victims might be armed and ready to respond with deadly force. Those who try to tally up the risks and rewards of gun availability by counting the number of times guns are fired in defense vs. in accidental injuries or deaths are engaging in statistical silliness; guns are the most effective in enhancing our safety when they are not being fired.

The next time you hear someone mourn a tragic loss of life and pontificate about how “there ought to be a law,” ask him what his position is on stepladder regulation.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.