There is no way that I am going to win the argument that I am about to mount. I have to accept that nothing will change until the costs become so great that things break down.
The trigger for this post was a story: the headline read P-Plate crashes down 45 per cent. The first paragraph said:
Following the introduction of no-tolerance law reforms in New South Wales, over 88,000 P-Plate drivers have been taken off the roads.
Fair enough you might say. What a good result, crashes down 45%.
A fact first. There has been a decline in the road toll for young drivers in NSW; 38 17 to 20-year-olds died in 2006, while 20 died last year.
So there have been over 88,000 license suspensions over two years for a saving of 18 deaths. My family thought that this was fair enough. I took a different view.
Over the last few years there have been a raft of changes, all intended to reduce the road toll. Just which has been effective is very much open to question.
In May last year in Saturday Morning Musings - the burden of compliance I spoke of the changes in NSW that increased the driving hours required to get a license from 50 hours to 120. I estimated the real cost as at least $350 million. If we could get rid of all young deaths, that's a cost (if my maths is correct) of $17.5 million per death based on the most recent stats.
I wonder how many lives $17.5 million would save if invested in the health system? Doesn't this sound a bit crazy to you?
Worse, we create an incentive among our young to break the rules. At 120 hours many cannot get their licenses, they cannot afford it, so they do what is necessary.
In NSW we lock up in jail four times as many young people relative to population size than Victoria. Seventy per cent of these re-offend within twelve months. The NSW Government has commissioned a study to find out why we jail so many. Part of the answer simply lies in criminal justice rules introduced to get tough on crime.
Pedophilia is a problem. We introduce mandatory reporting rules. Such a good idea. The strain placed on the NSW Child Welfare system caused an almost complete collapse (here and here, among others). Children suffer.
This is happening right across our systems.
I really do try to present an alternative view, if with little impact.
In Education Targets and Australia's Universities - delivery problems for the Rudd Government I suggested that at least part of the Rudd Government's higher education targets were unachievable based on simple maths. In Back of envelope calculations - is the purchase of Toorale Station a waste of money? I applied some very crude maths to test the real cost of the NSW/Commonwealth decisions to buy back this property and take it out of production. I suggested that the real costs had simply not been taken into account.
I stand to be corrected on my maths. But you won't find this type of analysis in most reporting.
I get so cranky sometimes.
In another story today, the opposition in Tasmania was suggesting that young people should be prevented from getting a drivers' license if their school attendance was not good. How dumb can you get? School attendance has nothing to do with the question of how well can you drive.
In NSW new restrictions have just come in on the sale of cigarettes. They restrict sales to just one cash register in any store. Will this affect total sales of cigarettes? No, but it does add another little cost for the store, a little inconvenience for the customer.
Staying with NSW, there have always been fines for the growing volume of traffic offences. Then demerit points were added for each offence, so many points and you lose your license. Then demerit points for offences were increased. Suddenly so many ordinary middle class people were suffering license suspension for minor offences that the Government was forced to back-off.
I think that the thing that most gets up my nose in all this is what I see as middle class arrogance as to what people should and shouldn't do, combined with an obsession with risk avoidance that links to protection of personal, economic and social position.
Take the NSW approach to driving licenses. If enforced, it disadvantages those who cannot afford driving lessons or who do not have a family car. I feel that this is just wrong. It creates another barrier that the less advantaged must jump over.
In similar vein, high traffic fines are regressive. A middle class person shrugs and pays. A low income person facing a fine that can equal a week's income if you are on welfare may refuse to pay. In turn, this can lead to loss of license and, sometimes, jail.
My understanding is, I have not checked my facts here, that one reason for the increase in prisoner numbers in NSW lies in the increased numbers of people spending time for non-payment of fines. Another side-effect of the NSW approach appears to have been an increasing number of un-licensed drivers.
At Federal level, opposition leader Turnbull, one of Australia's wealthiest men, wants the minimum price of a packet of cigarettes increased to $20 per week.
There are policy arguments for and against this proposal. But again, it has the effect of hitting hardest at lower incomes. Then, if people on low incomes continue to smoke, the extra cost affects other things such as food purchases.
I know that I sound like a broken record on some of these issues.
I find that in discussions people will accept to some degree that there is a general problem. However, as soon as discussion moves to specific cases or examples such as P plate restrictions views split sharply.
As an example, parents worried about their teen age children are more likely to support P plate restrictions in general because they see them as protecting their kids. It is very hard to mount a case against unless the kids are in some ways adversely affected by other aspects of the system.
In similar vein, these types of restrictions appear to be more strongly supported by non-drivers or non-car owners than by car owners and, also, I think, by those living close to public transport.
Obviously I have my own biases created by my own personal and family circumstances. This affects my views on, for example, the hours required to get a driving license.
In the case of my own daughters, the barriers created are sufficiently high that neither has so far bothered to get their licenses. This worries me somewhat. I would feel a lot more comfortable if they could drive.
It's not just that a driver's license is a requirement for many jobs. I worry about them not being able to take over the wheel if, for example, someone else has had too much to drink or if there is some other form of emergency.
Ah well. Time for work.
One of old colleagues and fellow campaigner for improvement, Bob Q, posted a comment that I thought that I would bring up on the main post. Bob wrote:
I get so cranky too, Jim.
The base cause is a complete failure to understand basic statistics and cost benefit analyses. Swine flu is a good example of this - world mortality figures for swine flu are very low. If the resources thrown at swine flu by the World HEALTH [ie not sickness] Organisation had instead been directed to malaria, malnutrition or clean water, many more lives would have been saved.
So yes, you are not going to win this one. But not because you are wrong.
As it happened, they distributed wipes plus hand disinfectant around the office today in honour of swine flue, along with an official notice about work absences.
I am not complaining. I can always use the stuff. But Bob is quite right.
The difficulty, I suppose, is that if swine flue had proved to be really bad and officials had played a more low key role, we would all have blamed them!