09 June 2009

A Tale of Two Tragedies

This might just get me in more trouble, but here goes...

A few days ago two young Bulgarki, in effect, chided me for being an insensitive boor in the face of tragedies affecting people I don’t personally know. I will argue that—at least when it comes to discussions of policy—we absolutely need the cold, hard calculation that only a disinterested third party can make.

This past week we witnessed two transportation-related catastrophes: on May 28th an old bus likely suffering from faulty brakes, plowed through a crowd of pedestrians near Yambol, Bulgaria killing 17 and injuring another 20. Then—of course—on the first of June, Air France 447 went down over the South Atlantic Ocean taking all 228 people aboard to a watery grave. While the numbers differ by an order of magnitude, the tragic loss is the same for the surviving friends and family whose lives were lost. Besides the grief they share, there must certainly be some anger and outrage over the fact that their loved ones’ lives were cut short. Everyone realizes that nothing can bring these people back, but I am sure each one of the victims' families would love to see measures taken to prevent another such incidents in the future, so at least their loved one did not die in vain…and certainly we should thoroughly investigate these accidents to determine the cause and possible changes in equipment or procedures that would prevent such an accident in the future. However—and this is where the cold, calculating third party comes in—it is necessary to determine the cost/benefit of any changes. For example, a $100,000 per plane retrofit may actually not be justified for an issue that occurs once in a million flights. This may sound callous, but in the larger scheme of things, it might be justified since this kind of money could be spent elsewhere, potentially save many more lives per dollar/euro or whatever metric you wish to use.

What is really ironic in this past week's accidents is the (probable) response: French and international officials will spend a million plus Euros on an extremely thorough investigation resulting in recommendations that will likely cost even more to implement, for what is likely a very rare confluence of event that caused this airliner to crash into the ocean. (Already they have issues a warning about the possible faulty airspeed indicators.) On the other hand, Bulgarian officials will likely go through the motions of a cursory investigation, whose results will be rubber-stamped and forever filed away in some obscure archive. Just like in the rest of Eastern Europe, auto, tuck, and bus drivers will continue to obtain their drivers licenses through bribes, vehicle inspections will continue to be a joke, and Bulgaria will continue to be one of the EU’s leader in highway deaths.

What really irks me though, is that all this seems acceptable to the general public! While air travel continues to be the safest method of travel (per passenger mile/km)—because we feel in control behind the wheel of our own vehicles—we accept and even insist on onerous restrictions and other measures to ostensibly make air travel safer [seriously, how am I going to make a bomb with a full-sized container of toothpaste or shampoo?!], yet we balk at any invasion of the supposed sanctity of our own vehicles, such as the reasonable expectation that you shouldn't use your mobile phone while driving. Probably the wisest use of any transportation safety budget would be to retrofit all automobiles with 5-point, racing-style seatbelts and issuing (and insisting on the use of) helmets for all auto passengers; just in the US, this would dramatically cut into the 40,000 plus deaths that occur on the roads every year! Of course the public would never accept this, so we spend more money on other issues that—in the end—save fewer lives.

Likewise, our opinion of the importance of any heath or safety issue is directly proportional to how “closed to home” the issue or incident hits. We are much more concerned if someone has been in affected in: our family, among our friends, then friends of friends, and finally the celebrities’ lives we follow. Instead we should look at the broad picture: what are the biggest killers and what are the most cost effective methods our governments can effectively implement to save live regardless familiarity, race, nationality, etc.
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