Drunk in charge: Outsourcing responsibility doesn’t make better judgement

I WAS recently waiting at the port of Dover and noticed that the newsagents were advertising road safety equipment. I’ve driven in France before, and already have a first aid kit, emergency warning triangle and high visibility vest. But they were now advertising breathalysers.

My immediate instinct – as a law-abiding adult – was to assume that I needed to buy one. But did I? I checked the small print and saw that it was to ensure “compliance with the law and guidelines”. There was some ambiguity about whether I “should” have one, or whether I “must” have one. (For readers who do intend to go to France, they have been compulsory since July).

This ambiguity was especially annoying given how pointless these devices are. There are two types of breathalyser – digitally-based ones that sell for around £100, and chemical ones that are much cheaper. There are major doubts about the validity of the chemical version. Also, you are encouraged to take the reading when you get in the car, but alcohol can take time to enter the bloodstream. What should matter is whether you’re intoxicated when driving, not before you set off.

But the main problem here is that it encourages people to outsource judgement. Instead of you being responsible for assessing your own fitness to drive, the law mandates a cheap chemistry set to make that decision for you. Breathalysers are a sufficient but not necessary means to tell if you are impaired. And they are positively dangerous if people feel that a negative reading automatically means they are safe to drive.

To improve road safety, we should be placing more discretion and more accountability onto drivers. And the same thing applies to other forms of regulation.

The public likes to blame banks for the financial crisis. But how many of us were paying attention to what they were doing? How many of those with savings at Northern Rock were looking at its balance sheet and monitoring its ability to find funding? Very few, I imagine. And the reason for this is because we’d outsourced judgement to the regulator, the FSA. But arguing for a better FSA is like causing a massive pile-up and then blaming it on the breathalyser. Maybe the breathalyser did malfunction, but the problem is using it as a substitute for personal judgement.

One of the most regrettable aspects of the last few years is the extent to which governments have reinforced this culture of wilful ignorance. They tell us that we weren’t to blame, and that the regulators will be improved. But there is no better regulator than an informed public. And there is no better decision maker than a responsible and accountable individual.

Next time I go to France I’ll have a breathalyser in the car. But I won’t use it. I’ll just make sure that I don’t drive if I’ve had a drink.

Anthony J. Evans is associate professor of economics at ESCP Europe Business School. Website: www.anthonyjevans.com Email: anthonyjevans@gmail.com Twitter: @anthonyjevans