Worth to save an Australian life

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.