Cost per life Saved: What is 1 Life Worth?


It’s an unsavory but necessary calculation. What’s a life worth?

Let’s say we can save 1000 lives by requiring airlines to spend a billion dollars. That makes the cost per life saved (1B / 1000) $1 million. What about a safety initiative that only costs $100 million but only saves 10 lives? That’s (100M / 10)  $10 million per life saved. Clearly the more expensive choice is better by the metric of cost-per-life-saved.

One more thing that must be counted is how many people will sentenced to death in their cars when they drive instead of fly.

Death by Car

Let’s say ticket prices must rise by $5 to pay for the $1B airline safety initiative. As a result, some small percentage of people will not fly. Some won’t make the trip at all, but some will travel in cars instead. Let’s further assume that an extra 100 people will die in car crashes resulting from those who drove instead of flying. We must subtract them from the 1000 lives saved. So really we’re only saving 900 lives making the calculation 1B / 900 or $1.11 million per life saved. Not a big difference but it should be considered.

Is that worth it? This is where we get to the question of “what’s a life worth?” When policymakers are choosing what systems to implement this should be a part of the calculus.

What if the Safety Widgets were 100 times that expensive and ticket prices doubled. Now a LOT of people would get sentenced to death by car, possibly making overall transportation LESS safe. Not a wise move.

Government Action

Having these numbers, and an assigned value for one life, will help regulators choose which safety initiatives are worth imposing. I’ll bet this one-life value is already calculated deep in the bowels of some DOT spreadsheet. And it should be. After all, the same calculus applies to safety improvements in all types of transportation. It’s a valid way to maximize regulatory influence.

As usual, better policy comes from better knowledge.

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