The cobra effect

The cobra effect is where an attempted solution to a problem actually makes it worse.

Its origins are briefly described here.  In India, the government was concerned about the large number of venomous cobra snakes in the city.  It set a bounty for dead cobra snakes.  Some people responded by breeding cobra snakes as a way to earn income.  Once the government realised that, it cancelled the program.  Cobra breeders then set the worthless cobra free.  The wild cobras multiplied, making the problem worse than before.  The apparent “solution” had made the problem worse.

This effect has also been labelled the law of unintended consequences, described here.  One of its most common causes is the failure to take into account people’s reactions.  Some bureaucrats assume that people are like passive pieces on a chess board, that they can manipulate through legislation.  This ignores that people react to policies.  Many government policies are well meaning, but the way they are implemented lacks imagination and foresight.  People react in unanticipated ways that can make the policy perverse.

History is full of perverse government intervention.  The alcohol prohibition in the 1920′s in the US is one.  In the US, the “war on drugs” has the perverse result of having a record number of people in jail, yet drug use increased.  Perverse policies can go on for years before they are reversed.

In the case of the bicycle helmet law, the main reaction to the legislation has been to give up cycling.  An independent assessment estimates that cycling levels were 50% below previous trend by 1996.  This has the unintended consequence of loss of health benefits from regular exercise.  It also has another unintended consequences: according to the well understood “safety in numbers“ phenomenon, a 50% decrease in cycling results in a 51% increase in the risk of accidents.  This corresponds to the 50% increase in the risk of death & serious injury observed after the helmet law.

This reaction seems to have taken the bureaucrats by surprise.  That is odd, as there were warnings this would be the case.  In 1985, cycling declined sharply in schools that mandated bicycle helmets.  It seems that the core issue is not an inability to foresee the negative side-effects of a legislation.  It is more likely a dogmatic approach.  This is confirmed by the attitude of many bureaucrats who exaggerate the benefits of polystyrene-based helmets, while ignoring the decline in cycling and the increase in the risk of accidents.

Why the emergence of such a dogmatic approach?  It was the result of the way the law was introduced.  The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons lobbied for more than 10 years for a helmet law.  By then, they and the bureaucrats & academics they had influenced had built up a huge emotional stake in this policy.  Part of the lobbying involved sponsoring “studies” exaggerating the effectiveness of helmets while ignoring the increase in accidents.  This reinforced the belief that helmets can only improve safety, and were seen as the magic solution to cycling safety. The resulting group-think meant that the belief in helmets remained unchallenged, despite being groundless.  This obviously seemed a “good” policy, that did not require much due diligence.

By the time and evidence emerged that the helmet law had failed to reduce injuries, this emotionally committed group did what most people would have done in such circumstances: try to justify themselves.  If it meant commissioning “research” obfuscating the failure of the helmet law, so be it.

The damaging unintended consequences should have been enough to end this disastrous experiment.  However, bureaucrats and politicians who have managed to convinced most people that “helmet save lives” through misleading advertising have no incentive to admit they made a mistake.

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