Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Airbag - designed for people who insist on freedom

I remember the days before the airbag appeared in cars. I was a kid then and I can remember how our family trips would start. Someone would refuse to put their seatbelt on as we all piled into the car. Dad would check to see that all of us were buckled in. If anyone was not buckled up, he would wait until we were and threaten dire consequences if we didn't buckle up quick.

I don't know how many times Dad did this, but once he got started on the subject of seatbelts, he always talked about how people were ejected from their cars in accidents when they didn't wear their seatbelts. He'd point to the windshield and say that if you get into an accident without wearing a seatbelt, you'll go right through the windshield. I was a believer. I wore my seatbelt.

Even as a young adult driver, I wore my seatbelt. I can remember one fine day when I actually forgot to buckle up. I noticed as I was driving, how I moved around in the opposite direction of the car when the car moved and that felt really uncomfortable. I felt like I had no control over where my body was going and that scared me. At the next stop light, I buckled up. To this day, I have no idea how people can even think they can drive without wearing a seatbelt.

What I learned that day was that when I'm not wearing a seatbelt, my mind is not focused on controlling the wheel, my mind is focused on controlling my position in the seat. I also noticed that I tended to use my arms to control my seating position. The seatbelt relieves me of that tension and gives me the leverage I need to maintain control of the car.

I remember the raging debates over the airbags. The debates boiled down to a simple concept. A man who refuses to wear a sealtbelt is a far more expensive mess at the hospital than a man who wears a seatbelt in the same accident. Even if insurance is factored in, the costs are higher for all of us if seatbelts are not used.

The subtext is that if you don't want to wear a seatbelt, we'll figure out another way to save your life in an accident. We'll force manufacturers to install airbags in cars. That'll fix it for ya. Then, even if you don't wear a seatbelt, the airbag will keep your teeth in your mouth by preventing a collision between your head and the steering wheel in an accident.

The people who refused to wear seatbelts in cars were imposing a huge cost upon everyone else. Their medical bills were higher, imposing higher costs on insurers, and ultimately, everyone else. People who wore seatbelts did not realize the cost savings because other people, the (crash test) dummies who refused to wear their seatbelts, continued to impose higher costs.

I can recall the righteousness of the people who wanted to drive without a seatbelt. They felt it was their god-given-right to do so. They believed that no one else is being hurt by driving without a seatbelt. But when they got into an accident, their costs were much higher and their fatality rates were also much higher. The people who didn't wear seatbelts had a hard time admitting that they were imposing higher risks and costs on others through their choices in the car.

This is the problem we have with health insurance. People who believe that they can save money by paying cash at the doctors office and insisting that they don't need health insurance are still going to impose a cost on others by their choices.

It's true that you can save money by paying cash at the doctors office. I know this and have even put this fact to use.Paying for the office visit is one thing. Paying for a catastrophic illness with a stratospheric medical bill is something else. That is what health insurance is for.

No matter how smart, young and healthy you think you are, you do not have the means or the experience to anticipate every contingency. It's simply not possible. Insurance companies have centuries of experience and empirical evidence to estimate your risk as a policy holder. They know their costs and their averages. They've seen it all.

One of the complaints about Obamacare concerns the individual mandate, a provision in the law that requires everyone to buy insurance or pay a tax. The objective was to expand the pool of covered persons, thereby increasing the total amount of money paid for insurance, and eventually lowering individual costs for everyone. It's simple math.

The provision was designed to deal with a persistent problem that is posed by the people who refuse to buy health insurance. The people who don't buy insurance sometimes find themselves facing costs that they cannot manage on their own. The costs can be so high that they go into debt or bankruptcy when they realize that they don't have a snowball's chance in hell of paying it off in their lifetime. Hospitals and doctors have to make up for this loss and that is where the high costs for the rest of us come in. I will admit that this can be a problem even for people who have insurance, but with a much bigger pool, we can expect to see some reduction in medical bankruptcy.

When the uninsured get in over their heads, they impose costs on the rest of us. Just like the dummies who refused to wear seatbelts.
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