Even if it’s broke, don’t fix it

Should women lacrosse players be required to wear helmets? Should people be allowed to text and drive?

We learn a lot about the dynamics of regulation in deliberately adversarial institutions by looking at the social-science laboratories known as sports. The guardians of heavily regulated competitions in sports and life are presented with an irresistible solution whenever systematic “issues” arise within their contests: tweak the rules.

The guardians of a sport or, say, an industry, get to “play god” with it. But as any fan of science fiction knows all-too-well, those playing god, or accused of playing god, tend to lack god’s omniscience. They have a hard time foreseeing the dynamic consequences of their rule-tweaking. This is especially true when putative solutions involve simple technological fixes. Game-players excel by using strategic rationality, so rule-changes will change behavior, but not always in the direction the regulators intend.

Across the sporting world, the past year has been the Year of the Concussion. The Onion recently satirized the trend with its article on “Puppy Bowl Marred by Tragic Spinal Injury.”

The injury, which occurred only minutes before the Kitty Halftime Show, followed a routine midfield burst of play. Slow-motion footage from the sideline and water-dish cameras show Alvin romping flat out down the sidelines before taking a risky crossing route to come at the football from an angle, at which point two larger puppies, Amy, a golden retriever, and Big Red, a 13-week-old shepherd mix, laid a massive hit on Alvin, who responded with a shrill yelp that was suddenly and ominously cut off.

Dark stuff.

But if competitors can use strategic rationality, so can regulators. A fascinating case study is going on right now in NCAA women’s lacrosse. Unlike their male counterparts (who play a vicious, gladiatorial game), the women play with speed, finesse, and without helmets. And sure enough, they get concussions. A lot of concussions.

Simple solution: make them wear helmets. Or not. As the New York Times reports in a provocative article entitled A Case Against Helmets in Lacrosse, many inside the sport believe that introducing helmets would simply lead to more violent or reckless play — and thus to more head injuries, not fewer.

“It’s hard to absolutely prove, but what we’ve seen is that behavior can change when athletes feel more protected, especially when it comes to the head and helmets,” said Dr. Margot Putukian, Princeton’s director of athletic medicine services and chairwoman of the U.S. Lacrosse safety committee. “They tend to put their bodies and heads in danger that they wouldn’t without the protection. And they aren’t as protected as they might think.”

Of course, this does not show that every regulatory impulse is misguided. Automobile makers resisted installing seat belts for years, and did not work on designing more effective seat belts until relatively late in the game. Eventually, they were forced by regulators in the 1960s and 70s to make seat belts mandatory. But even then many dissenters continued to argue that belts would cause more harm than good: that it would be better to be “thrown clear” of the crash, than trapped inside it. (Yes, thrown clear at, say, 60 mph…into on-coming traffic.) Studies would eventually prove the effectiveness of good seat belts, and by the 1980s their use was becoming mandatory in most jurisdictions. It is doubtful that seat belts led to drivers becoming more reckless because they now felt safer and less prone to injury — though that has surely happened in hockey and American football.

Still, consequences of regulating are often unforeseen and perverse. Not least when the “players” do not observe the spirit of the new rules. There is clear evidence that texting while driving is extremely dangerous. More dangerous than illegal levels of alcohol in the driver’s blood. So many jurisdictions have banned texting while driving. Sensible? Sure. Has it reduced accidents? No: in an effort to escape detection, people are now texting in their laps rather than up over the wheel (where they can hope to see traffic in their peripheral vision), and texting-related accidents are on the rise.

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2 responses to “Even if it’s broke, don’t fix it

  1. See Tom Vanderbilt’s book on Traffic for the challenges of changing driving laws/construction without triggering adaptation that can make things worse or about the same. Anti-lock brakes do not reduce the number of accidents apparently as drivers feel safer and then drive more recklessly.

  2. I could definitely believe that about the perverse effects of advanced breaking, suspension, and tire technology.

    We might note that it also took awhile to realize that airbags would kill a baby in the front seat. (But also that child seats would save them in the back.)

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