Putting a price on human life may seem callous, but for safety analysts, it's simply necessary. They judge whether a certain safety regulation would be cost-effective by comparing how much it would cost to implement with how many dollar's worth of human lives it's likely to save.
"You can't simply say that every life is infinitely valuable," said John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University whose work focuses on national security and risk analysis. "That's just not the way the world operates."
So in this monetized world we live in, what's the going rate? At least in the United States, "the value of a statistical life turns out to be around $5 million," Mueller told Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. If a safety code will cost more than $5 million for every person it will save, "regulators eyes start to glaze over. They say that that is too expensive."
As an example, consider a hypothetical trailer park located at sea level on the Gulf Coast. "Emergency management officials will analyze whether or not to build hurricane shelters for the people in the park. To do this, they figure out how many hurricanes would have to hit the park to justify the cost [of building the shelter]," Mueller said. They consider the frequency of hurricanes that hit, the number of people who live nearby (worth around $5 million each), and the cost of building and maintaining the shelter for the period of time from one hurricane to the next. If the money (people) saved is greater than the money spent, you build the shelter.
The U.S. government can't afford to build hurricane shelters everywhere.
If $5 million seems low to you, it's worth noting that safety analysts value lives more than most private companies. If faulty vehicle manufacturing leads to someone dying in a car crash, for example, "you can look how much will be paid to the family. That's usually much less than $5 million," Mueller said. Likewise, when a soldier is killed in Iraq, "the government pays the family $600,000. I guess that's what they think a life is worth."
If you strongly object to this whole concept and think that every life is priceless, you might consider this: Around 30,000 people die in car accidents in the United States each year. Close to zero would die if the government reduced the speed limit to 13 miles per hour. But do you want that to happen? Probably not.
"Then you're basically saying that driving faster than 13 mph is worth tens of thousands of lives," Mueller said.
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Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.