Few things illustrate the sounded-like-a-good-idea fallacy better than car alarms.
I am writing this post after six hours of helpless exposure to a nearby car alarm. At least one night per week is ruined by car alarms in the place where I live. Needless to say, these cars are never actually stolen – I just wish they were and be gone.
I moved here from a previous apartment that suffered from the same problem – only with a shop alarm. The building had a government office on the ground floor and when its alarm went off there was no one to shut it down since alarms only go off when the office is empty – by definition. And when a public employee is not in his office – he is not in the office. Entire weekends passed with the office’s alarm blaring and the employees refusing to pick up the phone because that is their sacred weekend. It goes without saying that the office was never burglarized.
Loud alarms are the perfect example of things that sounded like a good idea – yet they fail to stand up to any logical scrutiny when you break them down. In that they resemble policy decisions that are made with good intentions in theory – yet they provide the absolute worst incentives in practice, causing unintended consequences.
Things That Sound Like A Good Idea should be eternal reminders to scale back regulatory ambitions.
Car alarms sound so logical, so prudent, so obvious. When someone wants to hurt me, I scream and make a noise so that the attacker might go away or I might get help. The same logic, however, does not stand for inanimate objects.
First of all, no one would throw themselves into harm’s way to rescue a car that is being stolen or an office that is being burglarized. In fact, no one should. Not even if it is your own car and your own shop. I doubt that the police would suggest to confront burglars and car thieves ourselves. Not even insurance companies would suggest that – there are life insurances, after all, that cost a lot more for them than replacing a stolen car.
So the logic of a screaming car does not stand up to scrutiny. A car would not (and should not) get help just because its alarm went off.
If anything, an alarm should notify the police or the owner – preferably with location coordinates of the stolen car. And that can be done in perfect silence. Yet, these are the two entities the car does not alert: the police and its owner. Even police ignores car alarms on the streets. The only people who hear the alarm are those who happen to be (sleeping) nearby – and they have literally no recourse to silence the offending car.
Not even the owner’s phone number is displayed on cars so that we can give a call to the idiot who parked under our window and whose car is ruining our sleep. Not that it is an acceptable burden to expect from resident – but we don’t even have that.
What car alarms achieve is merely sleepless nights for people who have the misfortune to live nearby. Sleep disruption for people who will be your waiters, engineers and flight traffic controllers tomorrow.
If anything, car alarms and their noise pollution should be banned for the societal disruption they risk – while delivering literally zero results in terms of protecting cars from being stolen.
“…car alarms may be affecting the health of the people around them when they go off. A report … estimated that New York’s car alarms lead to about $400 to $500 million per year in “public-health costs, lost productivity, decreased property value, and diminished quality of life.””
—The Atlantic, 2016
When researching the plague of car alarms, I first suspected insurers. After all, it would sound soooo prudent that a car should be made to scream, and then something…something…something… not get stolen. It turns out that insurers noticed the problem a long time ago and they don’t require noisy car alarms at all. Because not even the statistics support the idea that car alarms work.
“In 1997, the insurance industry’s Highway Loss Data Institute looked at insurance claims data from 73 million vehicles, to see which devices could prevent theft. While new vehicle immobilizers cut theft rates in half, the study concludes that cars with alarms “show no overall reduction in theft losses” compared to cars without alarms. The alarms just don’t work. … “An audible system is really just a noisemaker,” explains General Motors spokesman.”
—Gotham Gazette, 2003
“95 to 99 percent of all car-alarm triggerings are literally false alarms. … Perhaps because of that, car-security experts say, people rarely pay them any mind, rendering them even less effective. Since blaring alarms usually mean someone accidentally bumped into a vehicle, or even just happened to play loud music down the street, an alarm rarely means an actual theft is taking place. Besides, if a thief really is trying to steal a vehicle, who wants to approach a potentially dangerous criminal? …. one 1997 analysis found that cars with alarms “show no overall reduction in theft losses.””
—The Atlantic, 2016
Then I suspected some state regulation, but there doesn’t seem to be one. At least not in the US, of which the article speaks.
Turns out, it is car owners who deliberately seek out noisy car alarms, install them, and then park outside of earshot – causing others sleepless nights. At any rate, no car owner is made to memorize the sound of his own car alarm so that he has a theoretical chance to realize that it is his car that is screaming – not someone else’s.
The idea of car alarms literally doesn’t make any sense when you break it down and try to say its unspoken pre-assumptions out loud. Like: “People would hear that a car is being stolen and do something about it.” Or: “Its owner would hear that a car is being stolen and do something about it.” And when you add the unintended consequences in sleepless nights and ruined quality of life, the illogical nature of car alarms becomes downright outrageous.
When you say these things out loud, it is obvious. But most often, we don’t say our pre-assumptions out loud when we propose regulations. Our inner gods are floating above society, making up rules as he goes, unfettered by the burden of ever seriously thinking about the unspoken assumptions or unintended consequences of what he proposes. And I’m afraid to say but our politicians are people, too. The same happens to them when they propose new rules – only they can also enact them, do real harm, and then propose even more regulations to mitigate that harm.
So Things That Sound Like A Good Idea will be a theme here from now on.
Featured image: Gotham Gazette, 2003