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The incentives of salted roads

On NPR’s, The Indicator, listener Tara Harvey asks host Cardiff Garcia why we salt the roads so much. “Research shows oversalting increases the possibility of slipping, costs more for materials and labor, and causes property damage.”

The Indicator is an economics podcast and Garcia offers economic reasons. Salt is cheap and effective. Salted roads reduce accidents by 87%. Salted roads allow people to get to work, “and that is an economic activity that needs to be counted against the cost.”

Everything Harvey asks and everything Garcia says are logical statements. But while numbers convey authority, they aren’t always right.

An alternative theory focuses on incentives. Consumption and payment aren’t connected

Salt is purchased by governments and governments take heat for not being prepared. Their incentive is to salt more, not less. The consumer’s immediate incentive is excess too. Better safe than sorry.

Until however it comes time to pay. Garcia knows this, “It all costs money. Not just the direct use of the salt itself, which has to be found and paid for, but also the environmental and ecological damage that it leaves behind.”

However, consumers never connect consumption with cost. Sure taxes are too high, but does anyone know how much of their taxes go to salting the roads? Ditto for the environmental effects that follow overselling. Consumers pay, but later and indirectly.

This salty situation is similar to the psychology behind too much debt. Act now, pay later. If later is long enough away and opaque (how much does salt cost a taxpayer?) then the cost seems especially low.

Photo by Simon Matzinger from Pexels