Socialized Costs of Misadventures

Socialized Costs of Misadventures

In gaps between hard-news stories, TV networks remind us of the missionaries and explorers detained by despotic regimes. Naive adventurers who "lose track of their direction" near hostile countries may expect polite guidance toward home, but they are sometimes held for political or financial ransom. Missionaries who preach in belligerent lands might feel a gush of righteousness, but they may also be sentenced to hard time. Adventurers and missionaries routinely ask for government help in obtaining their release, as if it is their right to impose that cost and sacrifice on American taxpayers.

This summer, two young aviators attempted to fly around the world. A 19-year-old aviator succeeded. But a 16-year-old aviator and his father, who had hoped to make their trip in 30 days, crashed in the Pacific Ocean. The 16-year-old died, and after a three-day Coast Guard search, the father was listed as missing but presumed dead. The failed rescue effort was very costly. By the hour, Coast Guard helicopters run $4,400 and cutters about $1,550. The American public was dragooned into rescuing those whose quest for glory ended badly.

Circumnavigation by solo sailors is also popular and dangerous. The attempt by a 16-year-old California woman to be the youngest to sail around the world failed when her mast broke in high waves. Australia rented a commercial airliner to search for her. When she was located, a French fishing boat was diverted to rescue her. An airliner like a Boeing 737 can cost $190,000 per month to rent, and the large fishing boat's cost of fuel and wages for this Good Samaritan junket must have been substantial. Again, unrelated people were asked to risk their own safety and absorb huge expenses to rescue an adventurer on a quest for glory.

Mountain climbers and extreme skiers and snowboarders similarly take on adventures that imperil lives. Each year Alaska's Mt. McKinley draws 1,200 climbers, who each pay the Park Service a $200 climbing "recovery" fee. In the first five months of 2011, a total of seven climbers were killed. Forty-four bodies have been left on Mt. McKinley when conditions were too hazardous to safely recover them. The Park Service has lobbied to increase its climbing fee closer to the actual cost of $500, but it has faced too much resistance. Climbers can certainly afford it: The full cost for training, outfitter supplies, guide, and accommodations can run $5,000 to $15,000. It's not a poor man's sport.

Washington's Mt. Rainier is easier to reach for most Americans, and its climbing fee of $44 is tiny considering the danger its annual 10,500 climbers face. Even rescuers can be hurt or killed. Similar dangers lurk in Colorado, where locating climbers can require special gear -- helicopters, dog sleds, snowmobiles, and sophisticated communications. The private helicopters suited to this task can cost $300 per hour to operate. Search and rescue can go on for days.

Big-ticket and high-risk adventures like long-distance solo flying, solo sailing, and rock climbing offer thrills, potential glory, and danger. We can admire these daredevils' infectious enthusiasm, athletic prowess, and sense of adventure, but when adventures work out badly, it shouldn't become our problem. Rescuers are asked to put their own lives in peril, and far too often the cost of rescue exceeds the thrill seekers' ability to reimburse the public.

Under U.S. common law, there is "no general duty to come to the rescue of another," though an obligation exists in cases where there's a special relationship between the parties (e.g. between spouses or between parent and child, or between a common carrier and its patrons). Emergency workers have no general duty to rescue people, and they cannot be sued for a failure to protect people who are not in their custody. Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Vermont created a duty to rescue, but there are few or no prosecutions under those laws. Many foreign countries have laws that require an attempt to rescue people in peril, but not if it risks the rescuer's life.

Limited public funds are available for treating severely ill children or others with no culpability in their desperate plight. But our Good Samaritan behaviors toward thrill seekers appear to have no cost limits. If the public were asked to choose where to focus scarce funds, it would not favor these subsidies.

There should be an enforceable obligation for thrill-seekers to reimburse the public for all rescue costs. They may need insurance.

Alan Daley writes for the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research, a nonprofit educational and research organization. For more information, visit  

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