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Derek NelsonDerek Nelson has been writing the Friday Funnies since 2002. He also creates the Photo of the Week feature for this website. A long-time Naval Safety Center employee, he is head of the Media Division in the Communications and Marketing Department. He is author of more than 200 freelance magazine articles and ten books about Americana and military history.

Unintended Consequences

Posted October 2, 2012

I’ve spent a good part of my professional life doling out advice and precautions, trying to convince other people to do stuff that they think is unnecessary.

Usually the rules and guidance that I’m purveying are well-thought-out. They make sense. If people followed them, fewer people would end up dead or injured, and fewer pieces of expensive equipment would end up on the junk pile.

At the same time, being a student of human nature, I’ve always been interested in unintended consequences. You know, those “Darn, I never thought of that!” things that circumvent the best of intentions.

One of the first ones I noticed was when I was living in rural Albemarle County in central Virginia. Driving the back roads, I’d sometimes see a sign that said, “No Dumping.” Invariably, these signs were in an ideal spot for backing up your truck and dumping a load of trash that you were too lazy to take to the landfill. So assuming you were the kind of antisocial slob who dumped trash on someone else’s land, you didn’t even have to search out a likely spot. You just had to look for one of those signs.

Here’s another example, involving those little, portable, breath-alcohol testers. The idea was to hand them out to Sailors and Marines before they went out carousing, so they could check their B.A.C. before trying to drive somewhere. A young Sailor once told me they’d take these testers to parties and use them, he said, “to see who could blow the highest.”

Another example is those clipless pedals for bicyclists. They’re a good idea—you get some power on the up-stroke. For mountain bikers, your feet don’t fly off the pedals as you go bounding down a rough trail. However, these clips take some getting used to. Once you start to topple, you need to know how to quickly unhook your feet from the pedals, which takes some practice, which some riders don’t bother to do until they slowly topple over at an intersection while the adjacent drivers wonder “What the heck…?”

That’s the thing about bike pedals that make it harder for your feet to fly off when you don’t want them to. They also make it harder for your feet to come off when you do want them to.

Our acquisition-safety expert once told me, “Improved engineering safety precautions might actually increase some undesired behaviors.” A classic example was equipping taxi cabs with anti-lock brakes in order to decrease mishaps. Two groups of cabs were equipped with either ordinary brakes or the newer anti-lock technology. Drivers with improved equipment adjusted their behavior to accept the same level of risk. In other words, just tailgated the driver ahead of them a little more, or pressed on the brake pedal a little later. As a result, the cabbies with ABS had about the same rate of accidents as those not equipped with improved brakes.

There are lots of other great examples:

   • In England, it was mandated that patients arriving at emergency rooms had to be treated within a certain amount of time. This meant that during busy periods, the E.R. staff sometimes made the victim wait in the ambulance outside, so the clock didn’t start ticking. This meant one less ambulance in service.

   • In Vietnam, during the French occupation, public health officials began paying a bounty for rat pelts. People started raising rats.

   • In the 19th century, paleontologists in China paid farmers to help them find dinosaur fossils, paying by the piece. Some peasants dug up bones and then shattered them, which greatly reduced the scientific value but maximized their payments.

According to Wikipedia, “Possible causes of unintended consequences include the world's inherent complexity…, perverse incentives, human stupidity, self-deception, failure to account for human nature or other cognitive or emotional biases.” And if that doesn’t give you a gigantic sense of pause before enacting a new rule, you shouldn’t just think twice, you should think three times.

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