Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Are life rafts really a rational expense?

Every time you guys ask me how many people can fit on my sailboat, I reply: "Well, let me put it this way, I have a 4-person life raft."   I mean it as a joke but sometimes I can see you guys mentally calculating who will be first to cannibalize whom if 4 of us are stuck on a life raft together in the middle of the ocean.

So let me explain it:
I can fit 20+ people on-board if I have to, but 4 people is really the max for reasons of both comfort and safety. How many people fit in the life raft is pretty much irrelevant because there's virtual certainty it will never be used anyway. It is just there to make you feel better. There is no real danger involved, and the  dangers that do exist, won't be cured with a life raft.

Trying to right a life raft in STCW course. 
But why do people get nervous? For the same reason I have to smile whenever  someone tells me they're worried about the safety of sailing, or of being attacked by sharks at the beach, while they don't even think twice about the dangers of driving 80-mph to get to the beach.

People naturally have a well-documented tendency to under-estimate the bigger, more likely risks, and  over-estimate the smaller, less likely risks (or as my Dad, an engineer who wrote his PhD thesis on road safety, used to say: "People tend to worry most about things they least control.") For example, worrying about nuclear bombs, while also smoking cigarettes or having a poor diet.

Fact: according to data accumulated over many years by the US Coat Guard of accidents and injuries related to boating in the US, on average every year 4 people die on a boat the size of mine, and only 2 of those are from drownings. (Note also the greatest danger -- accounting for more than half of all deaths and injuries -- is consuming alcohol and being inattentive.)

In comparison, 2 people a day drown in a bathtub or hot-tub in the US.  

So why don't bathers have to get a large, heavy, expensive life raft for the bathroom!?

Just kidding. 

Of course there are many more people taking baths than going sailing. (Note also, in real life, getting into a life raft should be your absolute last option and is usually more dangerous than staying aboard a damaged vessel as long as it still floats. Many sailors deployed life rafts during the 1998 Sydney-Hobart race, but were never found while their abandoned boats were found still afloat.)

But still, is this a rational expenditure, considering the infinitesimally small chance of ever resorting to using a life raft for an actual emergency, and that the money/space/weight could be used for other safety gear that is far more likely to provide an incrementally greater improvement in security (like an automatic fire suppression system.)

Well, now we're talking about perceptions of danger rather than realities, and so psychology kicks in rather than just number-crunching. After all, how do you value a life for example, and judge when a risk to life is worth it? If we follow the "even if it can save just one life, you should take whatever precautions are possible" standard of care, then should we be sailing at all? I mean, if we were really to follow that standard then every bathroom should have its own life raft, in real  life, because it can potentially save two people every day. Of course we don't go to that extreme either. No, we judge risks and outcomes and then make what we hope are informed decisions, or at least good bets. But we never judge right because we're human.

For example we have the Fear Premium: the amount you're willing to pay beyond what is strictly justified by the actual risk itself,  to avoid a particular outcome which you consider so awful as to be intolerable and to be avoided no matter how unlikely, and even at much greater cost.

Fear is by definition an irrational response, driven primarily by emotions; arguing facts and statistics will not change that because it just isn't about rationality in the first place. And we all are very predictably subject to fear. There are entire industries built on irrational emotions and fear is the main one, followed by guilt. Look at any, say, baby magazine for expectant parents and just see show page after page, it evokes and appeals to fear and guilt: You're going to kill your baby and you're a bad mother for not buying this or that. Of course we all would like to think that we exclusively are somehow immune to such appeals because we are uniquely more intelligent than the next guy -- which is what the next guy also thinks... and which is itself also proof of our irrationality. 

So anyway after I argued the statistics, the raft salesman right away invoked the Fear Premium: "What if you have guests on board and you're sinking? Will you tell them there's no life raft ... as the sharks surround you?"

Oh you sob!, I thought, because we both knew the answer, statistics be damned. (Not sure which was supposed to kill me first in such a scenario btw, the sharks or the guilt of not having a raft for my friends.) So, I  got a raft: a 4-person Viking RescYou Pro offshore, self-righting one too. I plopped the valise into my lazarette locker;  a piece of expensive gear that in all likelihood will never be actually used.

Hope you lot feel better now.

All the while, I was thinking of Cass Sunstein's book, "The Laws of Fear; Beyond the Precautionary Principle" on how and when paying the Fear Premium may be justified.

So in short, Yes friends, you can relax: I do have a life raft on-board and know how to use it, in case we're ever sinking.

No comments:

Post a Comment