The State’s Human Road Kill Project

Driving on government owned and operated roads is a dangerous business.  More than 2,000 Canadians are killed every year while simply travelling from point A to point B.  More than 400 people are killed every year in Alberta alone.  Of those, an average of ten people die on Alberta’s Highway 63, the sole two-lane highway that connects Edmonton with bustling Fort McMurray [1].

The highway’s high fatality rate and subsequent bad press has prompted the local MLA to jump into action.  He has asked the premier to fund more full-time traffic policemen so that more speeders and more drunk drivers can be caught [2].   The premier is on-board, of course, and her Minister of Justice is backing her up with threats to start seizing privately owned vehicles if their drivers are caught travelling at speeds that the Minister of Transportation does not approve [3].  It’s good to know that they are all pulling together on this.  Plus, the premier has promised to accelerate the conversion of the road to four lanes which has, so far, proceeded at a pace that is typical of government projects (i.e., glacial).

Problem solved, right?  After all these years of owning and operating roads, surely the big thinkers in the transportation department would know the winning formula.  But wait, even with these brilliant state initiatives underway, we all know that people will continue to die in large numbers on Highway 63.  So, let’s back-up a moment.

If roads were owned and operated by private individuals, there is no way that people would stand by while their children, parents and neighbours died simply for using the services of a private business.  In fact, they would demand that the road owners be put in jail for negligent homicide.  Or the owners would be sued out of existence.  Interestingly, government operators never suffer from such worries in this regard.

Because the government never faces any legal challenges in the operation of its roads, its solution to people dying on its watch is always the same:  add more cops to punish drivers, increase fines, confiscate private property (cars), add another lane and do a bit of  advertising (called “raising awareness”).  In private business the customer is king, but in government road operation, the customer is ALWAYS the problem.

If a private road owner was faced with the problems of Highway 63, you can rest assured that the most creative solutions would quickly come about and his customers would not be viewed as the primary source of the problem!  If the owner was truly free of any government oversight and regulation, and could charge drivers for the services he provides, then his solution might be to construct a highway with three lanes in each direction:  a lane for slow moving traffic, another lane for moderate speed traffic and a third lane for drivers who are confident in driving in excess of, say, 150 km/h.  After all, todays cars and trucks can easily handle high speeds.  Intersections might be redesigned in a way that minimizes potential crashes.  Sign and warning technologies might undergo revolutionary changes.  The possible solutions are limited only by our imagination.  The private owner’s focus would be on ensuring a safe and reliable customer experience rather than on punishing his customers and mopping up the blood of the ones who “didn’t make it”.

Such solutions escape the incompetent bureaucracy of government.  The transportation bureaucrats get paid the same whether zero, or 1,000, people die on their roads.  History has proven that government-run monopolies always result in poor service, unhappy customers, and in the case of roads, mass injury and death. Because the roads are operated as government monopolies whose expenses are paid indirectly through taxes, the benefits of the price and profit signals are completely absent.  As Mises wrote in Human Action:

“The paradox of ‘planning’ is that it cannot plan, because of the absence of economic calculation.” [4]

The politicians and the transportation bureaucracy are necessarily incapable of determining whether the road services they provide are acceptable to customers or whether they are economical and have good value.  Furthermore, it is next to impossible for the government to know what investments should be made in the roads they operate, or whether new roads should be built and how much should be spent on them.  All it knows is that it has a fixed budget that must be shared amongst the myriad of things over which it exerts its control, and roads are something that it does not like spending money on.

For example, is adding sixteen more traffic policemen the right number for Highway 63?  Who knows; there is no way to tell.  Should they add one more lane in each direction, or two, or three?  It is not possible to determine the answer.  Is the money better spent on some other government program or initiative?  Again, there is simply no criteria by which to make rational decisions.  Is there a better approach to this?  By locking out the private business owner who needs to compete for customers and who has a vested interest in the profitability of his business and good health of his customers, we will never know.

What we do know is that a private road operator would not sit idly by while his customers were killed.  Otherwise, he would be sued into bankruptcy or would go to jail.  His customers would leave for competing, safer, roads.  Killing customers would be very, very bad for business.  For the government, on the other hand, allowing citizens to be killed is simply an excuse to exert more authority and control.  No politician or bureaucrat goes to jail over it.

The annual loss of thousands of innocent lives proves beyond any doubt that the government is the most inappropriate and dangerous organization to own and operate roads.  Unfortunately, thousands of more people will continue to be sacrificed on the altar of government incompetence as long as things stay the way they are.  It is time to acknowledge that the state-run Human Roadkill Project has been a deadly endeavour.  Is it not time to ask that the current road owners and operators be called to personally account for the massive loss of life that has been occurring on their roads?

For further reading, I recommend Dr. Walter Block’s book “The Privatization of Roads and Highways”  [5].

[1]  “Alberta’s Highway 63, an oil sands lifeline, has seen 46 deaths in five years”, National Post, April 30, 2012 (http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/04/30/albertas-highway-63-an-oil-sands-lifeline-has-seen-46-deaths-in-five-years)

[2] “More Police Headed to Highway 63”, Edmonton Sun, July 24, 2012 (http://www.edmontonsun.com/2012/07/24/more-police-headed-to-highway-63)

[3] “More Police Patrols Added to Deadly Oilsands Highway”, Globe and Mail, July 24, 2012 (http://m.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/more-police-patrols-added-to-deadly-oilsands-highway/article4439714/?service=mobile)

[4] Ludwig Von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, 4th ed., Yale University, 1949, pg. 700.

[5] Walter Block,  The Privatization of Roads and Highways, Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 2009.

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