Secretary LaHood Says We Don't Need to Make Tradeoffs Between Safety and Utility

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I'm watching the Toyota hearings, which at the moment feature secretary Ray LaHood.  He just had a very interesting exchange with Representative Mark Souder, who has a GM auto plant in his district.  Souder obviously has an interest in defending the interests of automakers, but he asked a good question:  doesn't excessive punishment of companies that have problem--either in law, or in the court of public opinion--discourage them from being aggressive about finding problems in the first place?

LaHood said he wasn't worried about this, then proclaimed that safety had to be the number one priority of both his agency, and the automakers, and that he would ceaselessly hunt down malefactors until this was true.  This sounds wonderful, of course, but it is not actually true; as Souder pointed out, lowering the speed limit to 30 mph would save a lot of lives, but we don't do it.  Aren't there tradeoffs, he asked.

At which point Secretary LaHood achieved liftoff and rapidly departed reality.  He responded that lowering the speed limit to 30 mph would not save any lives, which is why we have minimum speeds on highways.  Representative Souder looked just as flummoxed as I was; did the secretary of transportation really not understand that the minimum speed limit exists to ensure that traffic is travelling at basically the same speed--which is indeed safer than allowing wide speed differentials?  Could he possibly believe that it was actually safer to drive 40 mph than to drive 30 mph?

Yes, apparently he could.  When Souder pointed out that the minimum existed in order to minimize speed differentials, LaHood proclaimed, "I don't buy your argument, Mr. Souder." Secretary LaHood seems to be arguing that the laws of the United States override the laws of physics.  I spend a fair amount of time hanging around isolationists who take a pretty hardline stance on U.S. sovereignty, but even for me, this was novel.

This is about the tenor of most of the hearing--I haven't seen so much posturing since I graduated Miss Elliot's Charm School for Gentlewomen and Girls.  It's clear to me that there have been some real problems with Toyota cars.  But it also seems like the hysteria and the hype are rapidly becoming unmoored from any actual danger.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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