Following the tragic demise of Qamar Zaman Kaira’s son, along with his friend in a car accident, the issue of vehicle and road safety became the focus of attention. However, it is not the first time that such an incident was followed by a public outcry. Whenever major road accidents happen, the public discusses these issues for some time only to forget them subsequently. In the year 2017-2018, the total number of reported accidents in Pakistan was 11,121, which resulted in deaths of 5,948 and injuries of 14,489 people. This is a considerable number and calls for the attention of policymakers.

Upon reflection, one can find many reasons behind this high number of accidents. The top contenders are driver’s recklessness, failure to follow traffic rules, abysmal condition of roads and lack of safety features in vehicles. There is no credible empirical evidence which can apportion the weightage of the causes of these accidents among the above variables. However, officials from National Highway and Motorway Police argue that more than 90 per cent of accidents in Pakistan happen due to the negligence of drivers. Nevertheless, after the latest event, all other factors were ignored, and a reductionist approach of calling out manufactures of these cars was adopted, urging them to include safety features in their vehicles. The campaign implored lawmakers to make it mandatory for car manufacturers to incorporate internationally recognised safety features in their cars. There have been some recommendations by parliamentary committees in the past to make airbags and antilock braking system (ABS) mandatory in all cars. A public interest litigation was also filed in the Lahore High Court to make the provision of aforementioned safety features compulsory.

Vehicle accidents and resultant deaths and injuries are certainly a cost to the society and must be avoided to every extent possible. However, are the above-mentioned hard interventions of mandating safety features in cars the best way forward? A rational application of mind will reveal this not to be the case. The first question that needs to be asked is what are the safety features that people are campaigning for? The two most common features they demand to be included are airbags and ABS. However, why stop at these features? Why not argue for other safety features like Adaptive Cruise Control, Automatic Emergency Braking, Blind Spot Detection and many others. Who decides which features should be included and in what order? Should it be a handful of elected officials or judges or should this decision be left to market forces?

Whenever a safety feature is included, it increases the cost of production. The manufacturer will pass on a significant portion of this cost onto the customer in order to keep its profit margins stable. Therefore, the price of the product is likely to increase, which will mean fewer people would be able to afford it. Each time, a customer buys something, he incurs a certain risk. The risk can be reduced if a customer is willing to pay more. A rational risk-averse person with unlimited resources at his disposal would buy a car that includes all the latest safety features. However, resources are limited, and comfort and risk need to be balanced against available resources. Therefore, if a customer is willing to buy a car without airbags or even seatbelts, at a lower price, then he or she should be allowed to do so. The state should be in no position to deprive an individual of this choice by pushing the price of car up by mandating its manufacturer to include safety features. Market forces are the best judge to decide what minimum safety features should be included.

Moreover, this centrally controlled policy might end up hurting individuals it desires to protect. Suppose a car with no safety features costs 400,000 rupees. State mandates different safety features, and the price of the car jumps to 500,000 rupees. Now, the person who could afford the car at 400,000 rupees cannot buy it. He will have to choose one of the many alternatives. Suppose he decides to buy a motorcycle. Now, the risk of death in case of a motorcycle accident would most probably be much higher than the risk in a car accident with no safety features. Therefore, the state, through its policies, has ended up exposing the individual to a higher risk than he otherwise would have been exposed to.

To conclude, the state should abstain itself from enforcing hard interventions like making it mandatory for lawmakers to include safety features. If the state must do something, it should choose softer interventions like making the driving license procedure transparent, informing drivers about traffic and safety rules, improving roads, and enforcing fines for traffic rules violations.