Moral hazard

Morally Hazardous Hikes

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Tracie Cone of the Associated Press reports:

Last month two men and their teenage sons tackled one of the world's most unforgiving summertime hikes: the Grand Canyon's parched and searing Royal Arch Loop. Along with bedrolls and freeze-dried food, the inexperienced backpackers carried a personal locator beacon—just in case.

In the span of three days, the group pushed the panic button three times, mobilizing helicopters for dangerous, lifesaving rescues inside the steep canyon walls.

What was that emergency? The water they had found to quench their thirst "tasted salty."

If they had not been toting the device that works like Onstar for hikers, "we would have never attempted this hike," one of them said after the third rescue crew forced them to board their chopper. It's a growing problem facing the men and women who risk their lives when they believe others are in danger of losing theirs.

"Rescue officials are deciding whether to start keeping statistics on the problem," Cone writes, "but the incidents have become so frequent that the head of California's Search and Rescue operation has a name for the devices: Yuppie 911." The unnecessary calls range from the accidental ("very often the beacons go off unintentionally when the button is pushed in someone's backpack") to the ridiculous ("a woman who was frightened by a thunderstorm"). Apparently, poor incentives have taken a system conceived as a way to help people beset by catastrophe and turned it into an overused, potentially overstretched service invoked at the drop of a hat. Now where have we seen that before?

Bonus comparison: If the health insurance angle ain't doing it for you, maybe you'd rather think of the beacons as a metaphor for bank bailouts:

"Now you can go into the back country and take a risk you might not normally have taken," says Matt Scharper, who coordinates a rescue every day in a state with wilderness so rugged even crashed planes can take decades to find. "With the Yuppie 911, you send a message to a satellite and the government pulls your butt out of something you shouldn't have been in in the first place."

As one rescue worker told Cone, "We are now entering the Twilight Zone of someone else's intentions."