What is saving an Australian life worth?
Country’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet says it depends on how old you are
By Michael Pascoe
How much is it worth to save an Australian life? The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet says not more than A$4.2 million (US$3.08), on average.
Young lives are worth a bit more, according to the PM&C guideline for bureaucrats drawing up regulations, and we’re also prepared to pay more to avoid particularly painful and gruesome deaths.
The latter is likely to be a factor in our willingness to spend disproportionately large amounts trying to minimise the already very low risk of death by shark while doing very little to counteract that much more successful serial killer, the common ladder. Sharks killed just two of last year, but ladders averaged 23 deaths a year over the decade to 2012.
The statistics are useful in busting two of the more common myths regularly regurgitated by media: “Human life is priceless” and its close relative, “If it only saves one life, it’s worth it”.
The reality is that human life is constantly being priced - every time a road is designed, every time another safety regulation is mooted, every time an expensive new drug is considered for government subsidy, every time a court decides appropriate compensation for wrongful death. Abacuses of actuaries are constantly on the case.
If it was true that “life is priceless” and “if it only saves one life, it’s worth it”, all our cars would be speed limited to 30 kilometres an hour and every intersection would at least have traffic lights, if not a flyover.
You could forget horse riding and rock fishing, bicycles would be kept to walking pace and anyone attempting to mount a motorcycle would be shot to save them from falling off.
The disconnect between acceptable risk and an over-the-top nanny state goes further that the “statistical value of life”. It also has to consider aesthetic values, convenience and the publicity value of some high-profile deaths.
The more unusual a death is, the more publicity and concern it receives, the more political pressure is applied and disproportionate reaction is the result.
On these pages over the weekend, columnist Elizabeth Farrelly let fire at the proposal to fence off Sydney’s Darling Harbour waterfront in reaction to two drownings that were tragedies for the families of the young men, but have to be seen in the context of being only two drownings after many years and many millions of visitors and the specific contributing factors - one was pushed in during a fight, the other fell in while drunk and could not swim.
For Darling Harbour and countless waterways and mountain tops, it’s not just the money when pricing risk - it’s also a matter of aesthetics. Risk reduction has to pass a reasonableness test, as well as a financial one.
But that doesn’t necessarily wash in the face of primordial fear of being eaten or when politics and media combine to whip up fear and/or sympathy.
In the latter case, none of us will be permitted to have a window that actually opens enough to be considered open because some small children have fatally fallen from them. It doesn’t matter that a child might never cross your doorstep.
In the former case, Peter Hannam’s calm assessment of our heightened shark alert showed it wasn’t the sharks in the water we should fear (those two deaths in the past year), but the water itself (280 people drowned in Australia in the same time).
Pricing life should help us move quickly to when an efficient form of prevention present itself.
For example, Queensland has had spectacular success in reducing fatalities from head-on collisions on the Bruce Highway by “wide centre line treatment” - having a one-metre centre line separation - on sections of the single-lane road where the shoulders are wide enough to permit it. The cost/benefit analysis should have the system rolling out nationally.
But first those lives must have enough perceived value.
Crikey’s Bernard Keane ran the comparative cost-and-frequency tape over our causes of death in light of our fear of terrorism. He counted 113 Australian deaths from terrorism in the nearly four decades since the Hilton Hotel bombing, including Australians killed overseas as well as non-Australians killed here.
To get back to the ladders of fatal opportunity, that’s less than half the number of us killed falling off them in one decade.
“Now that we have a sense of scale, let’s get some sense of what the numbers mean given the resources we throw at terrorism,” wrote Keane.
“In the period 2003-12, nearly 1700 indigenous people died of diabetes at a rate, on average, about seven times higher than non-indigenous Australians.
“If we’d invested a little of the money we spent going to war in Iraq or inflating the budget of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation on programs that lowered indigenous diabetes to just twice that of non-indigenous Australians, around 1200 lives would have been saved, or around 10 times the death toll of terrorism.
“Then again, there’s nothing sexy for the media in saving indigenous people from dying of diabetes.”