, Volume 40, Issue 2, pp 295-314

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Using value of statistical life for the ex ante evaluation of transport policy options: a discussion based on ethical theory

  • Bert van WeeAffiliated withTransport Policy and Logistics, Delft University of Technology Email author 
  • , Piet RietveldAffiliated withDepartment of Spatial Economics, VU University


This paper aims to discuss a number of questions that are highly important for the ex ante evaluation of the safety impacts of transport policy options, from the perspective of ethical theory: (1) Is it morally OK to express prevention on acceptance of fatalities or risks in monetary terms? (2) How useful is the concept of the value of a statistical life (VOSL) for ex ante evaluations of transport policy options? (3) What are the pros and cons of pricing protection of lives or prevention of risks in ex ante evaluations? (4) Which methods are available for expressing (protection of) human lives in monetary terms, and what are the main related methodological discussions? (5) Are all safety-related costs generally included in ex ante evaluations of the safety impacts of transport policy options, and if not: what is the relevance of excluded costs categories from an ethical perspective? (6) How important is the distribution of safety effects from an ethical perspective? The answer to the first question highly depends on the ethical theory that is used. With respect to question 2 we think that the VOSL is a useful concept, but that its application is not straightforward, for several reasons. Thirdly we think that probably pricing safety improves the quality of decision making, but to the best of our knowledge there is no research to underpin this expectation. The answer to question 4 is that several methods exist to estimate the value of a statistical life (VOSL), willingness-to-pay (WTP) methods being the most common category of methods. However, several methodological issues arise that make estimates of VOSL less straightforward. With respect to question 5 we conclude that behaviour-related avoidance costs are often overlooked and that these costs are relevant from an ethical perspective because the freedom to move and the freedom to participate in activities are challenged. Finally the answer to question 6 is that from an ethical perspective, in terms of the evaluation of policy measures, it might matter which groups of the population are the victims of the transport system, or are at risk. Egalitarian theories as well as sufficientarianism are useful theories to discuss distribution effects. Different theories conclude differently.


Value of a statistical life (VOSL) Ethics Cost–benefit analysis (CBA)