Widen Pool of Dock Electrical Inspectors
As published in the Springfield News-Leader:
It is hard to imagine a more terrible death than electrocution and drowning. Last summer, three people died that way in the Lake of the Ozarks area because of faulty electrical systems on docks. As a result of these tragedies, there have been calls to institute and expand dock electrical inspection programs in Missouri.
Dock inspections should be expanded in Missouri, particularly in tourist areas such as the Lake of the Ozarks. However, in the promotion of safety, it is also important to protect against “regulatory capture” — making sure that inspections do not become a monopoly for a small group.
A number of studies have demonstrated the danger. A famous study in the field found that areas with more stringent licensing of household electricians have higher rates of electrocution.
The reasoning behind that counterintuitive fact is simple. More stringent licensing leads to fewer electricians (which is often the intent in the first place). Fewer electricians leads to higher prices to hire one. Higher prices lead to more homeowner do-it-yourself work, which results in more accidents.
Licensing rules are always sold as protecting the public safety; in reality, however, they are often used to improve the financial position of current operators at the expense of competition (especially nonunion competition).
In setting up a comprehensive inspection program for all docks with electrical power, dock owners and authorities in the Lake of the Ozarks area should aim to widen — not narrow — the circle of potential inspectors.
Fire district officials, city or county code inspectors and private electricians should all be able to perform inspections. The lack of electrician licensing by the local government is not a concern, though I have no doubt some will try to raise it as one.
The goal should be to make regular inspections (once a year seems reasonable) as routine as annual heating and air conditioning checks or changing the oil in a car.
If annual inspections are easy to schedule and affordable, the vast majority of dock owners will be happy to comply. If, however, there are difficulties in scheduling and costs are high because the number of inspectors is limited, compliance will fall. Unless the point is to raise money from fines (and I trust it is not), nobody gains when compliance is reduced.
People do not select their electricians, lawyers or plumbers randomly, with only a government license to protect the public interest. People almost always choose these services based on the advice and experience of family, neighbors or business associates. Undoubtedly, there are dozens of electricians who have served the area well for decades without the government’s stamp of approval. Those private electricians should have the same ability to inspect docks as any code officials.
More inspectors means more competition and choice, and that always benefits customers and the public good. Even more importantly, it will help save lives.
David Stokes is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy.