Sam, Fred and the deer in the road

A story:

Fred is driving a car down a deserted highway in the middle of the night. His friend Sam is in the passenger seat. Fred reaches down to pick up something he dropped, taking his eyes off the road ((or maybe he doesn’t know he’s driving)). When he lifts his gaze back to the road, a deer has appeared.

What should Fred do? What should Sam do?

Clearly Fred should make a measured jerk of the wheel and swerve out of the way of the deer and Sam should do nothing. If Fred doesn’t swerve out of the way, he is responsible for the resulting crash. If Sam yanks on the wheel causing the car to go out of control and slam into a guard rail, he’s responsible for making the crash much worse.

The deer in the road is ultimately the cause for the crash, but as a force of nature he can’t be blamed for it. It is the actions or inactions of the people in the car that determine culpability. Because their actions determine whether or not the crash occurs and its severity, their culpability may not limited to not preventing the crash but for making it worse.

Friedman and Swartz found that Fred was at fault for the crash because he didn’t swerve when he should have. Ohanian has conjectured and has found some support in the data for the idea that Sam is at fault for making the crash worse because he jerked on the wheel.

But in the historical example, didn’t Sam jerk the wheel again after the car hit the guard rail? Yes, but jerks on wheels can, by luck, right out-of-control cars. Luckily for Sam, Eggertsson has found this was the case in the historical example. In that case, a jerk on wheel in the right direction happened to be productive.

Notice this doesn’t mean wildly jerking the wheel and sending cars out of control is a good idea. Also, the lucky productivity of the second jerk on the wheel doesn’t mean the first wasn’t bad.

4 Responses to “Sam, Fred and the deer in the road”

  • Gavin says:

    A cat ran in front of me once when I was going about 45mph. It was so last second that there was no doubt it was too late to avoid it, so I just plowed straight ahead. I felt bad for the cat, but was confident that I had done the safest thing for the people in the car.

    To this day, my wife occasionally throws the incident in my face as an example of how much I like running over animals.

  • swong says:

    I was riding home on the freeway one night in the slow lane during a windstorm. The only other car in sight was a Civic in the fast lane, about 100 meters ahead. A tumbleweed blew into the cone of his headlights. He jerked the wheel hard right to avoid it. He went into a lateral drift, overcorrected, overcorrected again, and again, spun, and came to a stop, facing backwards in the slow lane (on the freeway, yeah), about 20 meters ahead of me.

    I was fine. I cut my throttle the moment I saw the first swerve, and was safely stopped on the shoulder by the time he would have bisected me. I’m confident he did the most dangerous thing for himself and any bystanders.

    To this day, I remember this incident as an example of what asshats car drivers are.

  • TGGP says:

    Steve Horwitz has an upcoming paper in Econ Journal Watch in which he criticizes Eggertsson on the Great Depression. Since I can’t read it now, I don’t know if it takes on your point though.
    http://austrianeconomists.typepad.com/weblog/2009/08/hoover-and-the-great-depression-redux.html

  • pushmedia1 says:

    Gavin, sometimes drivers have to do the wrong thing in order to appear to do the right thing especially if they want to continue to be elected… erm, married.

    swong, yeah, drivers suck.