Wednesday, April 13, 2011

When safety makes us less safe

Jim O'Grady of WNYC reports on a rant about bus safety from James Hall, who was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1984 to 2001 (under three presidents!). Hall is now a lobbyist on Capital Hill, who was paid $80,000 last year to represent Porsche on emissions regulations. O'Grady did not mention Hall's current job, or whether he was speaking for himself or a client.

Hall argues that recent bus crashes, including the gambling bus crash, show that buses aren't safe enough, and that the government needs to legislate stricter standards. He criticizes the American Bus Association for lobbying against (Word doc) a recent "safety" bill. The bus industry and the government, he charges, "have treated the people who ride these buses as second-class citizens and given them second class safety.:

There are lots of problems with Hall's entire line of reasoning, and I may get a few blog posts out of this, but let me focus first on the idea of safety. It's easy for "safety" people like Hall to get so fixated on their jobs that they miss the bigger picture. In this case the bigger picture is that improving the safety of individual rides may make bus rides more expensive, less available or less comfortable. This may convince potential passengers to choose to drive or fly instead, and that in turn may make us all less safe, due to two important principles.

The first is that professional automobile operators are safer than amateurs, and the second is that each additional operator increases the danger. Operating a motor vehicle safely is a difficult job, and training and experience help a driver to overcome that difficulty. A professional driver has a career and a reputation to maintain, while an amateur cares much less about being thought of as a dangerous driver; for some it is even a marker of coolness.

There are also job standards and workplace rules that require minimum levels of competence, sobriety and rest. They are not always followed, but they are stricter and better enforced than the laws regulating amateurs.

The other principle is that driving is a human activity requiring attention and good judgment, and even the best operators occasionally fail. The more operators you have on the road, the greater the chance that any one of them will make a potentially fatal mistake.

If you have five hundred people going from New York City to eastern Connecticut, they could travel in four hundred cars or in twenty buses. It's completely infeasible for all four hundred cars to be driven by professionals, but that would only bring a fraction of the potential safety improvements. The safest would be twenty buses driven by responsible professionals, but if even half of those buses were driven by poorly-trained, irresponsible, stressed and/or fatigued drivers it would still be a lot safer than if the passengers all drove themselves.

Air travel is safer than individual drivers, but still much less safe than buses. Convincing people to choose bus travel over driving not only improves their safety, but the safety of everyone on the road with them.

Many of the proposed bus safety improvements are sound, but the seat belt proposals are not. Long bus rides are already uncomfortable; requiring seat belts could drive away some of the riders who have been attracted by wifi and power plugs. The cost of implementing these and other safety requirements should be taken into consideration. A high enough cost upfront could jack up the bus fare high enough to drive many passengers away, or it could reduce the bus company's profit enough that it would cut back on service.


Alon Levy said...

If American buses offer second-class safety, then American cars offer ninth-class safety. I vote every car that can't clear the low bar set by the FRA mainline network gets removed from the road. That might at most leave the Google self-driving car on the road, which would be very safe since there would be zero other cars for it to run into.

Jonathan said...

Your post brings to mind the sad case of amateur automobilist Diane Schuler, notorious for driving her car the wrong way on the Taconic back in 2009 and killing herself, four passengers, and three other road users. Half as many people died in her accident as in the casino-bus crash, but you don't see high-priced lobbyists calling for stricter standards for transportation to family overnight camping trips. In addition, if the Schulers had been on a bus, they (and the Bastardi family, in the other car) would likely have had a different outcome.

P.S. The captcha today is "crash." Appropriate!

Brandon said...

This is a pretty common occurance. Politicians seize on something in the news and enact policies relating to it, even though its not the real danger out there.

busplanner said...

One additional concern: If seat belts are required (even if they could be totally comfortable), standees may be banned. While charter and long distance routes normally do not have standees, commuter routes that operate interstate often do. If standees are prohibited, the cost to operate these interstate commuter routes (often as short as New York City to Weehawken, NJ - one side of the Lincoln Tunnel to the other) skyrockets.

christine said...

If we require seat belts ib cars , we should require them in buses. We should also require mirrors to see pedestrians in the front and right side.
Finally there are new black boxes that record everything a driver do and help reduce accidents. This would be very helpful in weeding out the bad drivers , which, after all, are the main threat.

Alon Levy said...

Why? Cars, with or without seat belts, are about 1.5 orders of magnitude less safe than buses without seat belts.

I have an idea. We require all trains to withstand 100-200 tons of impact without deformation. Unless "We" are Americans, in which case make it 900. Let's make cars withstand the same impact and see how many still sell.

jazumah said...

I would prefer that the various safety agencies actually check all buses instead of only checking small and Chinese operators. Why should private bus operators have to follow regulations that do not apply to transit agencies running the same equipment?