If software and sensors are to blame, then the Boeing accidents are another reminder that safety policies can have unintended fatal consequences.
Another Boeing 737 crashed Sunday in Ethiopia, killing all 157 aboard. This is the second crash of the new Boeing model Max 8 since October. Investigators have only begun sorting out this tragedy but some experts suggest that the plane’s automated safety software may have prevented the pilot from preventing the fatal plunge.
If software and sensors designed to prevent crashes actually increased the risk of catastrophe, then the Boeing accidents are another reminder that safety policies can have unintended fatal consequences.
Unfortunately, policymakers routinely ignore the unforeseen costs of well-intended safety efforts. For instance, the Transportation Security Administration, seeking to make air travel perfectly safe from terrorists in the months after 9/11, spawned airport checkpoint regimes that are so intrusive that many Americans choose to drive instead. A Cornell University study estimated that TSA’s heavy-handed policies helped boost traffic fatalities by at least 1,200 additional deaths.
A Business Week analysis noted, “To make flying as dangerous as using a car, a four-plane disaster on the scale of 9/11 would have to occur every month, according to an analysis published in the American Scientist.…People switching from air to road transportation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks led to an increase of 242 driving fatalities per month — which means that a lot more people died on the roads as an indirect result of 9/11 than died from being on the planes that terrible day.”
Air bags — which are explosive devices built into car dashboards — epitomize the perils of safety mandates — especially when their harm is shrouded in coverups. By the late 1990s, about 66 children and short female adults had been killed by air bags, and over 300,000 people were injured by the bags each year, according to the federal Department of Transportation. The Department of Transportation was informed in the late 1960s that the devices could pose severe safety risks for some passengers. But the information was suppressed because, as a confidential 1991 NHTSA memorandum noted, “bad press [on air bag deaths] could cause a lot of harm to the public’s positive perception” of air bags.
Cycling safety can cause more harm
Urban bicycling is another area where policies pursuing safety benefited morticians. Dedicated bike lanes were supposed to create a safe haven for two wheelers. But painting stripes on streets has not boosted prudence among either intolerant drivers or cyclists who ride in rush hour traffic with ear buds that cripple their awareness of perils. Bicyclist fatalities have increased 25 percent since 2010.
Even common sense safety devices such as bicycle helmets can have counterproductive results. A British researcher found that automobiles drive closer to cyclists wearing helmets. Other studies have shown that cyclists wearing helmets ride more aggressively (if not recklessly) than they otherwise would. While some riders view helmets as Guardian Angels, headgear does not protect against the vast majority of injuries cyclists suffer. Besides, as a Vox analysis noted, “on a per trip basis, biking causes more deaths than driving.”
FDA’s safety rules hurt waiting people
When it comes to collateral damage from safety mandates, it is difficult to compete with the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA’s glacial, incredibly expensive procedures for approving new drugs has perennially blocked Americans from medications that could have saved their lives. Robert Goldberg of George Washington University’s Center on Neuroscience, Medical Progress, and Society estimated in 1996 that “FDA delays in allowing U.S. marketing of drugs used safely and effectively elsewhere around the world have cost the lives of at least 200,000 Americans over the past 30 years.” As Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Sam Kazman observed, “Whenever FDA announces its approval of a major new drug or device, the question that needs to be asked is: If this drug will start saving lives tomorrow, then how many people died yesterday waiting for the agency to act?”
Boeing, unlike federal agencies, does not enjoy sovereign immunity and thus will have every incentive to speedily correct any defects that are discovered in its 737s. Liability laws can do wonders to encourage corporations not to kill their customers. Unfortunately, no such remedies appear available to deter damages inflicted by the TSA or FDA.