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Safe, at any cost?

April 13, 2007

David  blogs his latest air travel related brush with reality.   I started to just leave a comment, but after I wrote the comment about three times, and realized the extent of what I wanted to say, I felt it deserved a post on my nickle. 

While the post 9/11 changes to air travel certainly serve as a non-subtle reminder, I think the real issue is broader and is a struggle for me to encapsulate in a post.  

Historically, we’ve always been willing to fight for our beliefs and our desired way of life. We fought to gain independence.  We foughtto acquire this land upon which we live, displacing those that were here before us.  We fought bitterly amongst ourselves during the civil war, and have fought alongside, and against nations in wars since.  

In the last hundred years, the role of government has ever broadened here, driven by our society’s collective cry for intervention and protection from ourselves and our fellow humans.  

Seventy-five years ago there was no FDA, no FCC, no OSHA, no NTSB or FAA .

Now days, whenever anything bad happens, people get in front of the media and demand loudly that somebody do something to prevent this from ever happening again.    And you know what?  The collective people / government / media mechanism responds.  

Let’s look at our personal freedoms over the last 50 years.  Seat belts are a good thing to have in cars, but why does it need to be illegal not to wear them?  It’s a $100 fine not too, because someone, somewhere decided that I need to be threatened with punishment in order to do something to potentially protect me.   That’s just crazy.    I choose to wear them, because they ARE a good idea, not because I’m made to.     Airbags are a good thing, but why do they need to be mandated?  Won’t free market conditions regulate them?  Helmet laws?   It seems common sense to protect your head, but if you would rather ride without one, shouldn’t that be your choice?   The list goes on.

Consider all the zero tolerance policies that have cropped up in the last 10 years in response to public outcry.   The very things that these policies target were already illegal.  Now we are suspending or expelling kids from school for having aspirin because we don’t want them to use illegal drugs?  These laws were put in place, because civic leaders and the media demanded action to “make us safe”.

Reasonable precautions should be undertaken, but common sense must prevail.  In order for it to do so, we as a people, need to stop trying to hold everyone accountable for our absolute safety.    What if we instead, hold ourselves accountable for the risk we are willing to take?

If we reflect back on some of the most exciting and memorable times in our lives, I’ll bet those experiences weren’t all that safe, yet they were the ones most worth doing.   If we want to maintain our freedom, even reclaim some that has been lost, perhaps it’s time to relinquish some of our expectation of entitlement to be safe.   Take risks,  live life,  accept the results.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2007 11:12 pm

    Perhaps the caveat should be “for adults.” All minors *should* be forced to wear seatbelts. They work. It’s that simple. But I think adults should too.

    In terms of agencies like the FDA, etc, I’m all for them. In a global economy with just a handful of agribusiness controlling such large percentages of the food supply AND so incredibly focused on profits, I wouldn’t rely on the free market to ensure that, for example, that breakfast drink actually does have vitamin C (see New Zealand).

    Sometimes, government mandates work because they rely on market forces. The FCC mandating UHF tuners in televisions gives way to the digital tuner requirement coming soon. By ensuring a huge market, it drives costs down permitting the general public, not just those who can afford it, will benefit. And yes, there was no FCC before radio but the airwaves are a public good (though Don Imus may disagree right now).

    Airbags as an option would be fairly expensive, judging by the $2,800 a car maker demands for a navigation system while a TomTom costs $400 — add a few hundred for the larger screen even and it’s still a huge profit center. I’m not convinced airbags are worth it even at these low costs, but I’m not really informed enough to know. I do know that if they were only an option, few people could afford it or pay.

    Yes, there’s a line, a fine one where it becomes intrusive and yes, the TSA seems to be window dressing. Forcing checks for threats that have already come and gone (e.g. shoes). Meanwhile, the random checks keep showing a high failure rate while ports and subways and trains (see London) are still not secure.

    The lack of an event as proof that current measures work is the worst kind of logic but it’s one they rely on to say, “See, it works!” even while the lost productivity hours churn up on pure silliness.

    By the way, in an accident, I really hope the other driver is wearing a seat-belt, especially in a head-on. I don’t want them flying through their windshield into MINE. And if you don’t think taxpayer dollars go to drivers not wearing seat-belts, you’re crazy. The ER costs are skyhigh. Why should I pay higher insurance or more taxes because some idiot doesn’t feel like buckling up?

    The FDA doesn’t do enough, our food supply (forget pet food for a moment) is a hodge-podge mess. And anti-smoking laws are a good thing too.

    I wouldn’t put actual and real safety legislation and lump it into the TSA. Seat-belts save lives. I can’t say the TSA has saved anything but the profit margins of the water sellers post security.

  2. Lee permalink
    April 13, 2007 11:37 pm

    Well, while I agree with you in broad terms, I find myself quibbling on some of you particular examples. It’s like this: if some helmetless biker smears his brains all over the road, somebody has to pay for the kitty litter they sprinkle to soak it all up. So the gummint has a stake in convincing bikers to wear their helmets, and a little revenue stream to help soak up the cost of the kitty litter (and cops, emergency team, etc.) is nice too.

    That having been said, the public is often hysterical, and too often laws are made without regard to how reasonable the risk is, whether the cost of implementing rules does or does not outweigh the impact of the risk, etc.

    I mean, for instance, no cupcakes allowed at school because somebody may be allergic to peanut oil that may be in the cupcakes (but probably isn’t) and the kid presumably is not aware of it. Crap. If you’re that allergic to peanut oil, I say it’s natural selection is action.

  3. April 13, 2007 11:39 pm

    Amen to your last two paragraphs. those sum it up perfectly.

    Frankly, if people want to ride motorcycles without helmets or take other stupid risks that don’t effect the lives, safety, etc of others, they can go right ahead. If you’re stupid enough to smash your skull in, well then natural selection did its job.

    In the end it comes down to: how much freedom are we willing to sacrifice for a sense of well being and safety? Maybe some people feel safe with the TSA & its huge presence, but how real is the new safety? Have we caught anyone smuggling liquid explosives or hiding a grenade in their shoes? Who says the TSA policies are anything but a feel good for the public?

    I read somewhere, at some point, a story about a Middle Eastern country that had to deal with a rising problem of airline hijacking (I think this was back in the 70’s or 80’s). An airline was hijacked, they negotiated it to the ground, took over the plane, brought the hijackers outside, and killed each one of them there on the spot (reportedly in front of news media). That country had no more hijacking problems.

  4. April 14, 2007 12:18 am

    I feel like in the US we are trying to compensate and play “catch-up” with other countries in terms of air travel. Pre 9/11, we had very lax security compared to the rest of the world. I’ve never forgotten travelling to Stuttgart Germany for work, well before 9/11. I stopped at the customs window to answer the usual questions. Given that I’d flown all night, my jet lag would not let my brain remember what day I was returning when I was asked. That’s when the interrogation began. This guy went through all my documentation and asked a billion questions. What should have taken a minute took about 15-20. Never experienced anything like that in all my air travel in the US.

    Personally, I don’t mind a little inconvenience to keep the bad guys away.
    David is not a woman…you haven’t been upset until you have to toss your new tube of MAC lipglass away. Trust me. 🙂

  5. April 14, 2007 1:16 am

    Lee says: “It’s like this: if some helmetless biker smears his brains all over the road, somebody has to pay for the kitty litter they sprinkle to soak it all up.”

    And if a biker wearing a helmet crashes and doesn’t die, the healthcare systems gets to treat his injuries – which are most likely severe. Which costs more? And if he doesn’t have insurance, the public eats that cost one way or another.

  6. Lee permalink
    April 14, 2007 2:56 am

    Tim: Okay, okay. You’ve convinced me. Let’s outlaw bikes!

    Seriously, I’m only making the point that, unless you live on a desert island, there really are no kinds of risky behavior that don’t affect other people. Also, the laws are not merely paternalistic. Do you think drunk driving laws have become so strict because somebody’s teenager got killed? I suspect the insurance lobby plays a rather stronger role. I know the insurance companies lead the fight for seatbelt laws, motorcycle helmets, airbags. I haven’t looked at the actuarial tables myself, but this makes me rather suspect the helmeted riders cost less in general.

    But like I say, I actually pretty much agree that things have gotten creepily paternalistic. It’s not just the laws. Look at policy in business and schools. I mentioned the cupcakes. But once you start looking there are all sorts of de facto laws meant to protect people from the slightest harm. In practical terms, in the USA, we have a considerable amount of censorship. Oh, it’s not _technically_ censorship, as speech is not restricted by law. But the effect is the same. And most of the policies restricting speech (I’m thinking here of colleges) are motivated by the desire, essentially, to keep anyone from getting his or her feelings hurt. Thing is, you don’t have a right to not have your feelings hurt. You do have a right to say whatever you wish (yeah, yeah — no yelling fire in a crowded theater). And anyway, if I say something that hurts your feelings, that reflects on _me_ not you. It may well mean I’m a jerk and should be censured, but not censored.

    There are plenty of examples of chemicals and drugs that have been banned or severely restricted without due cause: malathion, sacharine. DDT is a wonderful tool for preventing malaria, though, granted, you probably shouldn’t be using it on your tomato plants. Like Mark Knopfler says, “I want my DDT.” Well, I guess that was actually Sting. But anyway.

  7. April 14, 2007 5:01 am

    Wow, I think this post has sparked the most discussion of anything I’ve ever put up!

    Usually, my bouts of navel gazing just don’t spark people’s fancy. Thanks Lee, Benjamin, Tim, and Krista. I guess I was poorly trying to make a number of points, and we all probably have a fair ammount of common ground to agree on, despite some of the different corners of the discussion we explored.

    The examples I chose probably weren’t the best. As I think it all through, it’s really slippery, and maybe that’s why its the way it is. On one hand, nobody would argue against reasonable measures – hand rails, seatbelts, safety inspections that could prevent death and dismemberment. On the other hand, I feel like, to Lee’s point that it can become overreaching through media fueled hysteria and pretty soon you can’t bring in cupcakes or have nail clippers on a plane – or as David found out – 4 oz of lotion, or a tube that COULD hold 4 oz, even if some was already used.

  8. April 14, 2007 1:03 pm

    Overreaching is one criteria. But efficient is another. Seatbelts, helmets, car seats, food inspections (maybe), airbags — these actually WORK.

    The problem many have, like me and you and David, is that what the TSA does is try and close a security hole after the fact and there is nothing to say these things work — actually, they keep failing their own internal tests.

    Of course, we should balance things that work with civil liberties, costs, etc. Left to their own devices, many free market industries will cut corners (see builders and Mexico City). Oversight is needed.

    I’d put the TSA up there as one of the least effective organizations we’ve got. Again, the lack of an event is not proof something is working. The Israelis have done airline security better than we have for a long time yet we don’t do the things they’ve been doing for 10 years. Instead, we pick possibly the most arbitrary of criteria as if the placebo effect will keep American’s calm and give them a sense of comfort. You’re 100% right, they are placebos not fueled by the media but by the TSA’s enforcement of new, silly rules.

    But things that actually work (seatbelts, airbags) shouldn’t be lumped with those not proven to do a damn thing (no lotion over 2oz). Even within the things that are proven to work, we still have the question of civil liberties but that’s a bigger discussion…

    I’m glad we can’t bring 4oz of hand lotion on a plane but some baggage handler with a record can easily steal stuff out of our luggage and some guy can die and be left in a plane bathroom for two hours after landing. I’m all for airport security. I just wish we hired the Israelis to do it or at least had them design it.

  9. April 14, 2007 9:41 pm

    And I’ll comment as well.

    I actually sit on the other end of the issue. In Argentina laws and law enforcement are lax, to say the least. If you drink and drive there’s little chance you’ll get caught. Most people don’t wear seat belts. Not to mention that everyone thinks he’s Michael Shumacher.

    The result of all of this is one of the highest rates in car crash fatalities in the world.

    Although I do agree that for people with an ounce of common sense the paternalistic laws are dumb and intrusive, I think the least common denominator rule applies. The world if full with irresponsible, careless selfish people. I think some of this laws are meant with such people in mind.

    Yet I think most of those “redundant” laws can be solved with education. If you are taught to wear a seat belt you do so not because it is the law, but because it makes perfect sense. Sure enough there will always be people that act stupidly, but they’ll do so even against the law.

    The airport security is a whole different story. This happens because there are people so fanatic (desperate) that don’t mind blowing them selves up to pieces with a couple of hundred other human beings. The tight airport security looks to me like trying to prevent the Titanic from sinking taking the water out with a glass of water.

    The way to solve this is not to make you fly naked as Adam, but to look for the cause of such tight security. Yet this does not mean to bomb Afghanistan until it becomes a parking lot, but rather trying to understand what drives some people to such limits. Yet I’m no expert on the subject but I do think it has more to do with power that with religion.

    As usual the obvious answer seems to be that governments seem to over-simplify over many subjects, thus giving half-solutions.

  10. April 15, 2007 7:52 pm

    .Replaced the lotion. About to go back through the process tomorrow — laptop out, shoes off, metal out of pockets — two bins: laptop alone in one, shoes first in the other, then coat, then bag of toiletries. Hold boarding pass like Willy Wonka’s golden ticket and pass through the altar of safety to reassemble it all on the other side right quick so the next poor soul doesn’t think to himself: “Fricking moron.”

    Rinse. Repeat.

  11. April 16, 2007 7:18 pm

    So there I was in Boulder, CO passing through the fabulous TSA land idiots domain. I had already gone through several check to get out to CO but this time they wanted to look at something in my laptop bag. It was a $3.99 tool kit. It consisted of a handle and some interchangeable screw driver and nut drivers. Cluck, cluck cluck went the TSA agent. “I’m sorry sir but I’m going to have to consult with my supervisor on this”. I could not imagine what the deal was with this thing. Over came the supervisor. I cannot describe how bizare an ex-body builder looks when becomeing a trans gender person, but I was glad that our government has the courage to be that liberal in its hiring policies. I just wish they were a litlle less conservative on their criterea on what passengers were allowed to transport with them on a plane. The supervisor clucked away and decided that it was just too risky to have me carry this set of tools with me on the aircraft. Of course I could have them shipped to myself for about $25. I guess it is OK to ship them in the hold of a USPS aircraft. I declined.

    The rest of the trip home I tried to imagine a scenario of how I might have disrupted the flight with that set of tools. I pictured myself holding the screw driver handle to the flight attendant’s neck threatening to screw her if anyone made a move toward me. Or maybe I could have taken the set into the lavatory and gained access to the secret alternate flight controls and flown the plane into the White House.

    And what about the two yards of ethernet cable I carry that I could use to strangle the crew with? What about that cell phone that I’m supposed to keep turned off. I could go into the lavatory and turn it on. Then with my Blue Tooth secretly take over the flight controls.

    What is keeping six conspirators from each carrying 3.5 oz. of nitro on board and combining it into a bomb? First class now get a plastic knife. What about all the weapons that prisonors in the penetetiary are able to make out of newspapers?

    Maybe if we had enough room to sit down and stretch out our legs in a plane and be able to use the arm rest without elbow wrestling with our neighbor we wouldn’t feel so violent when we get on a plane. How about enough lavatories so that you don’t have to consider defecating like an astronaut.

    Why is it I find it far more desirable to drive 800 miles for 12-14 hours than to fly in luxury?

    Planes suck and the security measures employed are a joke. an expensive joke.

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