Friday, 15 February 2013

Coroner recommends

Search Google NZ for "Coroner recommends" and you'll find:
The Coroners Act 2006 empowers coroners:
to make specified recommendations or comments (as defined in section 9) that, in the coroner's opinion, may, if drawn to public attention, reduce the chances of the occurrence of other deaths in circumstances similar to those in which the death occurred; 
Persons appointed as Coroner "must have held a practising certificate as a barrister or solicitor for at least 5 years."

I'm sure that these are all smart and diligent people. I'm also sure that there is no required training in cost-benefit analysis in a legal degree.

The problem seems to be in the Act. Pretty much anything that could reduce the chances of particular forms of death can be recommended; there's no consideration anywhere of costs. It's fine to say that that's Parliament's job. But Coronorial recommendations carry some weight - people take them as being something more than "This is something that could save lives, but I have no clue whether it's worth it because I have zero training in policy assessment and cost-benefit analysis, so somebody else better figure out whether we'd be wasting a whole ton of resources in enacting it; moreover, the Act specifically asks me to just name any darned thing that might help even if it would cost a trillion dollars and save a life every fifty years."

I'd be willing to bet that a reasonable proportion of the above recommendations would fail any serious cost-benefit analysis. Mandatory high vis clothing for cyclists, licenses for nail guns, and mandatory skateboard helmets all seem exceptionally unlikely to pass any kind of "is this a reasonable policy" test.

This economist recommends that either Coroners get training in cost-benefit analysis, or start noting the limitations of their recommendations.

Update: Matt Nippert points out that the Chief Coroner wants it mandatory that government respond to Coroner recommendations. I would hope that the default response would be "The value of a statistical life for policy purposes in New Zealand is $3.8 million; the policy seems exceptionally likely to impose costs in excess of $3.8 million per statistical life saved. Please go away and come back with something reasonable."

Update 2: Russell Brown notes that the high visibility recommendation wasn't even based on the facts of that accident but rather on the coroner's "common sense". Egads.


  1. Yeah. They seem to be on a statutory mission to eradicate death (which is ironic given they're all quite old).

    "Coroner recommends evacuating entire population of NZ to someplace with less natural hazards, like Belgium"

  2. I'd favour eradicating death. These piecemeal things hardly seem likely to achieve it though. Coroner recommends pouring money into biotech to give us lizard-like regeneration powers.

  3. Coroner recommends instant fines for people who get too close to a glacier without authorisation:

    Coroner recommends "peer review" for decisions by search and rescue experts: This one in particular would probably cause more deaths than it saved, with delays in decision making, and also from a culture of blame that would encourage those in charge to send volunteers into dangerous situations when not necessary.

  4. Imagine the consulting opportunities for economists that only have to show coroners' recommendations cost < statistical life.

  5. Oh boy, yes. Let's make government responding to coroner things mandatory. Hadn't thought about that part.

  6. I thought I had the glacier one, but totally missed the sartec one. I only went through the first couple pages on the Google search.

  7. And if they achieved their mission, they'd be out of a job...

  8. Some of us card-carrying members of the Illuminati are lizard men. Welcome to your future overlords!