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TRB Special Report 324: Designing Safety Regulations for High-Hazard Industries, examines key factors relevant to government safety regulators when choosing among regulatory design types, particularly for preventing low-frequency, high consequence events. In such contexts, safety regulations are often scrutinized after an incident, but their effectiveness can be inherently difficult to assess when their main purpose is to reduce catastrophic failures that are rare to begin with. Nevertheless, regulators of high-hazard industries must have reasoned basis for making their regulatory design choices.

Asked to compare the advantages and disadvantages of so-called “prescriptive” and “performance-based” regulatory designs, the study committee explains how these labels are often used in an inconsistent and misleading manner that can obfuscate regulatory choices and hinder the ability of regulators to justify their choices. The report focuses instead on whether a regulation requires the use of a means or the attainment of some ends—and whether it targets individual components of a larger problem (micro-level) or directs attention to that larger problem itself (macro-level). On the basis of these salient features of any regulation, four main types of regulatory design are identified, and the rationale for and challenges associated with each are examined under different high-hazard applications.

Informed by academic research and by insights from case studies of the regulatory regimes of four countries governing two high-hazard industries, the report concludes that too much emphasis is placed on simplistic lists of generic advantages and disadvantages of regulatory design types. The report explains how a safety regulator will want to choose a regulatory design, or combination of designs, suited to the nature of the problem, characteristics of the regulated industry, and the regulator’s own capacity to promote and enforce compliance. This explanation, along with the regulatory design concepts offered in this report, is intended to help regulators of high-hazard industries make better informed and articulated regulatory design choices.

Accompanying the report, a two-page summary provides a condensed version of the findings from this report.


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