Thursday, July 20, 2006

Unintended Consequences

This morning one of the smoke alarms in our house started beeping intermittently. Apparently, a battery was running low, but since this thing is wired directly to the electrical power in the house, the battery is backup. Well, I don't have any 9V batteries in the house, and the beeping was driving me crazy, so I removed the dying battery (beeping continues), pulled the thing out of the wall (beeping continues), and buried it under a mattress where I will soon forget it. The annoying beeps are supposed to motivate me to do something about the situation NOW, but since I can't, I had to dismantle the thing to retain my sanity, and will have to try to remember to buy a new battery and re-install the alarm. It could be weeks or months before that happens, and in the meantime, we have no smoke alarm upstairs. This stupid, annoying safety feature has resulted in the unintended consequence of providing much less protection than if the battery had been allowed to die without warning.

A similar thing has resulted from child-proof caps on medications. Elderly people and those with arthritis had a difficult time opening them, so many people simply left the caps off entirely to avoid the hassle. It's more likely that a child will get into an uncovered bottle of medication than one that has a simple lid on it, so the stupid, annoying safety feature created an even more dangerous situation than the one it sought to prevent.

Same thing with seat belts. The cars that incessantly beep at you if every seatbelt in the car isn't fastened forces drivers to fasten all the belts in the car, and then people are too lazy to undo them and just sit on top of them instead of buckling themselves in.

One can easily draw an analogy to gun safety laws, designed to keep us poor benighted fools from unintentionally harming ourselves or others. Laws, for instance, that make it more difficult to access a loaded firearm when a violent predator breaks into your home. Or if your government decides to disarm people entirely in the name of public safety, it results in the unintended consequence of breeding many more wolves hungry for defenseless sheep.

These things happen because of human nature, not in spite of them. Nanny-types see the relationship between laws and safety as infinitely linear -- or even exponential -- every measure taken will result in more safety. But, in reality, the relationship is more like a parabola. You can do sensible things to promote safety up to a maximum point, after which anything more results in a decline. This is why we have unintended consequences. I wish the safety nazis would figure it out and leave things to common sense instead of trying to legislate danger out of existence. But that's human nature, too.


Blogger carnaby said...

D-cell? Like, I thought those things took 9V batteries? Do you have some sort of special smoke detector that can run on a single 1.5V D-Cell?

7/20/2006 4:02 PM  
Blogger Rusticus said...

We have that type (with a 9v) at our house. Ours also 'chrips' very loudly as it dies, causing the other alarms to sound off, briefly.

We have a vaulted ceiling in the kitchen/family room. Way towards the peak is a fire alarm that has no battery and is not plugged into the power. Why?

Because the dang thing is up too high and went off at 3 am one night, freaking the heck out of me, forcing me to get the latter from the garage, climb up some 12 - 13 feet (the peak is at 15 feet), not look down at any point, yank the dang thing out of the socket, pull out the battery and stuff the offending, still-chriping device in the glove compartment in the van in the garage until it died completely.

In the morning, I put it back into the socket, inert.

Kinda proves your point, no?

7/21/2006 8:45 AM  
Blogger Stickwick Stapers said...

Oops, you're right, Ben. A 9V battery it is. Gonna fix the post.

Rus: Great minds think alike.

7/21/2006 10:18 AM  
Blogger Francis W. Porretto said...

"I wish the safety nazis would figure it out and leave things to common sense instead of trying to legislate danger out of existence. But that's human nature, too."

It might or might not be human nature, but it's definitely safety Nazi nature.

"A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business...The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice the utmost humility, is boundless." -- Eric Hoffer, The True Believer

7/29/2006 2:24 AM  
Blogger Stickwick Stapers said...

That's a terrific quote, Fran. Let me supplement it with another...

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience." -- C. S. Lewis

7/31/2006 7:23 AM  

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