Garett Jones  

Would the Private Sector Make You Wear an Airplane Seatbelt?

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This week I tweeted:

What argument do defenders of government-mandated airline seatbelt paternalism use? It can't be that plane crashes aren't salient to buyers.

Note that I'm asking why the government has to mandate seatbelt usage.  Since people overestimate the chance of dying in a plane crash, I suspect that in the absence of government mandates customers would usually vote with their feet for airlines with strong safety records and strong-seeming safety practices.  Nervous customers would choose the safest-looking airlines: And seatbelts make people feel safe. 

The fact that plane crashes are overly salient thus becomes an argument against government seatbelt rules.  The failure of ironclad rationality becomes an argument against government paternalism. 

Coda: My colleague Gary Leff, airline expert, did a good job blogging the issue here, with a focus on why mandatory seatbelt use is rational.  A big reason noted by Leff and his commenters: Inflight turbulence turns your fellow passengers into projectiles.  Again, I'd predict that without government mandates, private airline rules would enforce a "sit down and belt up" rule.  



COMMENTS (10 to date)
Nathan Smith writes:

Couldn't you go even further, and say that a paternalistic government should PROHIBIT seatbelts on airplanes? Knowing the real risks of plane crashes, the government could save people from the needless discomfort they impose on themselves due to irrational overestimation of risks.

Garett Jones writes:

@Smith: +1

Andrew writes:

I'm sure the airlines prefer that the government mandate it than that it be a private rule. That way if any unruly passenger tries to dispute wearing the seatbelts (or tries to smoke in the bathroom, or use their phone during the flight), the flight attendants can just say "Sorry, sir/madam, it's a federal law," and deflect the passenger's annoyance off the airline onto the government. As a few people have pointed out, the airlines will never lobby against safety regulations because they want to cultivate an air of safety. But we could go further and suggest that regulatory capture allows them to encourage offloading of safety regulations onto the government.

Steve Sailer writes:

Either the government or the insurance companies is going to impose seatbelt rules.

With respec writes:

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Methinks writes:

I'm pretty certain that a seatbelt won't save my life in a plane crash, but it very well might prevent injuries (possibly life-threatening ones) during severe turbulence when the plane can drop hundreds of feet in an instant, tossing around unrestrained items including passengers. Turbulence is far more common.

I don't see any reason for government mandates. Most of us would prefer to have the option to restrain the movement of our bodies as the plane jiggles erratically and so airlines will respond with the cheap option of a seatbelt. Yet another expensive and useless regulation.

And I suspect Steve Sailor is correct - insurance companies will mandate seatbelts. However, I prefer insurance companies mandate them as a condition of obtaining insurance to a monopoly on violent force with no skin in the game. The insurance company has every incentive to minimize idiotic and costly requirements while the government has no such incentive.

Rosa19 writes:

i dont want to be hit and seriously hurt by someone who hasn't used a seat belt during heavy turbulence etc...externality argument surely?

Jp writes:

If turbulence is the rationale then why can they serve coffee? Even the most turbulent flights I've been on haven't come anywhere close to "human projectiles", and I've landed in Ladakh...

AS writes:

Andrew's point was my thought as well. Given that airlines would want the same rule anyway, they'd rather make someone else the bad guy who enforces it. In addition, the rule prevents entry by a low-cost competitor who would offer standing room only tickets, as Ryan Air has considered.

Insight writes:

"I'm pretty certain that a seatbelt won't save my life in a plane crash"

It depends what you mean by "plane crash." Catastrophic fall from the sky, certainly not. Runway collisions, bird strikes, landing gear failure, and similar more-survivable incidents are a different story.

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