Sunday, October 7, 2012

Hear About Herd Immunity

“Save lives by dropping bike helmet requirements.”
     A feature in last weekend’s New York Times makes that argument, using as evidence the highly successful French bike-sharing program, Vélib. Because of Vélib, carbon emissions from auto use are reduced. Plus, we’d expect the benefits of exercise—lower rates of hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes.
     The NYT article attributes the popularity of programs like Vélib to riders not being expected to wear safety helmets. And this is where I’ll make a link to “herd immunity” before concluding with what it has to do with the world of retailing.
     Herd immunity describes the notion that if a very large percentage of the population is immunized against a disease, those who don’t receive vaccinations are protected because there’s no disease lurking around to catch. With Vélib and similar programs which embrace riding bicycles sans head protection, we can add to the benefits that there will be fewer autos lurking around to knock people off their bikes and thrust those people’s heads into destinations which puncture. Those without the helmets acquire a variant of herd immunity.
     Requiring bike helmets results in what I call “ricochet consequences.”
     A higher level of ricochet consequences—regarding airplanes instead of bicycles—was discussed in a 1996 Slate article: Why were small children allowed to sit in a parent’s lap when flying? We buckled down the passengers, flight attendants, and dinnerware. Why not the little kids?
     The answer was in a consumer behavior study commissioned by the Federal Aviation Administration. It said requiring small children to be buckled into their own seats would cost lives. If the parents had to pay for a seat for the child, they’d be more likely to drive, and driving is much more dangerous per mile than flying. It was estimated that an airplane infant seat requirement would result in nine additional babies killed on highways each decade, while saving only one death from a plane collision. That’s because plane crashes are rare. So are head injuries from bike accidents, says the NYT article.
     A Harvard Business Review blog posting carried the case further: A ricochet consequence of requiring infants to have their own seats would be to increase the demand, thereby probably raising the price, thereby making it even more likely parents would choose to drive, thereby making things even worse.
     Regulations on retailing intended to protect consumers can have dangerous ricochet consequences.

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