Monday, September 29, 2008
As I was waiting in the airport security line last week, I began thinking about the costs and benefits of being protected against a terrorist attack on my plane. When I got back, I went to my computer and looked up the following statistics on the DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics webpage:
- 4,779,479 vehicle passenger miles, 2002-05 avg.
- 532,262 air passenger miles, 2002-05 avg.
- 0.19 deaths per 100 million aircraft miles, 2002-05 avg.
- 1.47 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles, 2002-05 avg.
- 769.4 million airline passengers in 2007 (745.7 in 2005)
- $6.4 billion TSA budget in 2007 ($5.3B in 2005)
You can obviously crunch the fatalities data a bunch of different ways (e.g. vehicle miles vs. passenger miles, number of miles vs. number of trips, fatality rate vs. casualty rate), but regardless, we seem clearly willing as a society to incur a vehicle fatality rate much higher than the current airline fatality rate.
We are currently spending $6.4 billion in TSA spending plus around 700 million in lost labor hours from travelers having to allot extra time at the airport for security purposes. These are real costs to productivity and happiness, and for at least some of this time and money the next highest valued use would probably have saved lives we don’t even know about.
Given our willingness to incur up to the vehicle fatality rate, if we think of the difference in vehicle and aircraft fatality rates as a “fatality cushion,” then isn’t it reasonable to consider reducing our airline security by up to the amount required to keep the aircraft fatality rate less than or equal to the vehicle fatality rate? In fact, it appears that air travel is so much safer than vehicle travel that we could probably eliminate security for everything except bomb detection and cockpit security and still not be worse off. There’s nothing demonstrably worse about a plane attack than a ground attack unless the assailant is willing to commit suicide, and if it’s equally likely that passengers and assailants have items that can be used as weapons, the odds of successfully bringing down a plane full of passengers who remember 9/11 are not going to increase by much.
The most reasonable objection, it seems to me, is that we should be spending any amount of money and time to prevent any life from being taken. Except that to defend that position, you would have to be willing to do a whole bunch of other things — most notably, changing vehicle laws and regulations to bring vehicle fatalities down to the level of airline fatalities. What else am I missing?
By the way, I see that TSA’s budget in 2007 was a 20.8% increase from 2005, but the number of passengers in 2007 increased only 3.2% from 2005. Shouldn’t the budget per passenger decrease as we get our infrastructure in place? I’m just saying…