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Airline Security Killing More People Than It Saves?

Megan McArdle has an amusing letter to the airline industry explaining that she’s going to go from a frequent flier to an only-if-she-really-has-to flyer because of the increasing indignities imposed by airport security and in-flight economizing.

But commenter Morten Josefsen makes a more sober point:

How many Americans will die in car crashes due to the extra traffic, vs how many lives will be saved from the new security measures? I bet this is a very significant negative number.

It may be unknowable but he’s almost surely right.   Commercial flight is easily the safest mode of transportation.  The more of us who go out on the road taking drives of eight, nine, ten hours to avoid the frustrations, indignities, inconveniences, and delays imposed by airport security, the less safe we are.

To say nothing of less free.

UPDATE: Dave Schuler points to a Naval Postgraduate School thesis which finds “full body scanner usage at airports will increase annual highway driving fatalities from as few as 11 additional deaths to as many as 275.”

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    Plus those new scanners give you a 1 in 30 million chance of a fatal cancer (according to an article on MSNBC which I posted elsewhere, can’t find it now). Roughly the same chance of being killed by a terrorist in an airplane, so there’s no net benefit to using those scanners.

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  2. Dave Schuler says:

    As a matter of fact the question has been studied. Here’s a masters thesis on that very subject. I’d intended to mention it last night.

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  3. Steve Verdon says:

    You know its amusing those who say scanners don’t invade privacy. Grab a camera head down to the street and start taking pictures of people there. I bet shortly you’ll be in some sort of altercation. Even though these people have zero expectation of privacy they act as if they do, and react accordingly.

    Even in public I expect people not to see under my clothes. Now in airports this is not true when going through a check point.

    I think it is pretty clear that privacy is being violated here. Claims to the contrary just don’t hold up. The only defense at this point is that the violation is both legal and necessary.

    And from the abstract of Dave’s link:

    The findings are that full body scanner usage at airports will
    increase annual highway driving fatalities from as few as 11 additional deaths to as many as 275

    Well the upper end of the estimate is pretty much the same as blowing up a plane every year. In that case, the systems do NOT enhance safety. They offer no improvement in safety.

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  4. Tano says:

    Hmmm, by the same logic, perhaps we should accuse the airlines of killing Americans every time they raise their fares.

    But seriously, isn’t this kind of blame shifting the type of thing that you guys would argue against in other contexts? The scanners aren’t causing anything. That some people, following their own free will, choose not to fly because of the scanners, doesn’t transfer responsibility for their subsequent driving onto the scanners.

    You are not being forced by the existence of the scanners to drive. Its not like as if the scanners could only handle a certain number of people, so flying is thus rationed. It is wholly your decision not to fly, and it is not the responsibility of the scanners even though you choose to blame them for your decision.

    If you want to assign blame in a meaningful way, you can blame the movement that is actually encouraging people not to fly. These people are directly responsible for persuading others to engage in the riskier behavior of driving. Ultimate responsibility for accidents remains with the drivers of course, but indirect responsibility can fall on those actively encouraging people to drive, or fear-mongering them about the scanners. I really don’t see how you can take it that extra step and blame the scanners.

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  5. Michael says:

    But seriously, isn’t this kind of blame shifting the type of thing that you guys would argue against in other contexts? The scanners aren’t causing anything.

    They’re not blaming the scanners, they’re blaming the policy. The fact that a policy put in place to make the population more safe is likely to have the opposite effect is definitely something to be criticized. Also this policy costs the tax payers more money.

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  6. Michael says:

    Not just the cost of the TSA and scanners either, increased driving traffic means increased road maintenance.

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  7. Steve Verdon says:

    Hmmm, by the same logic, perhaps we should accuse the airlines of killing Americans every time they raise their fares.

    Oh absolutely. Jesus. Nobody is accusing anyone of killing people. It is possibly an unintentional outcome of a bad policy.

    Helpful hint for Tano: not everything where people die has to be murder.

    I thought we covered this in the cell phone use while driving thread.

    Sheesh.

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  8. Tano says:

    “Oh absolutely. Jesus. Nobody is accusing anyone of killing people. ”

    Gee, I am sorry Steve. Silly me, I got tripped up by the title of this post:

    “Airline Security Killing More People Than It Saves?”

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  9. Tano says:

    And furthermore, my very next word, after the part you quoted, was “But seriously…’

    y’know, what we say when we mean – “ok, now all joking aside….”

    You got a real problem bud….

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  10. Nightrider says:

    So what are the prudes here going to do when technology brings affordable cameras that can take these sorts of images (or better) of people just walking down the street?

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  11. Drew says:

    I’m hoping one of my scans goes viral on YouTube so I can use it as a promo for my next career in the, uh, “adult entertainment” industry.

    Sorry. Just trying to bring some levity……

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  12. vagabond says:

    This could all be avoided with dogs… Bomb sniffing dogs could take care of this scanner problem… And they can do it faster than the person looking at the machine that’s scanning either you or your bag…

    i’d rather have a dog sniffing around my crotch than a scanner disrobing me or a TSA agent groping me…

    The dogs i’m sure are less money to get and train than these behemoth scanning machines but like all security concerns it’s less about security and more about government contracts for security….

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  13. Pug says:

    I was seriously groped by a security agent at Heathrow in London about a year ago. I didn’t realize until now just how seriously I was victimized.

    I just kind of shook it off, made a couple jokes with my companions who evaded the grope and went about my day.

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  14. Tano says:

    To all the advocates of using dogs – could you take a few minutes and do the calculations for us – what exactly would be entailed, in terms of the number of dogs needed given the hours one dog can work, the number of security stations, the need for backup dogs in case one can’t work a particular shift, the expected workinglife-span of a dog. How many trained dog-handlers would be needed. How much of an added industry would be required to support all this?

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  15. Neil Hudelson says:

    I can offer my own anecdote to testify to this idea. I chose to drive instead of fly out to DC a few weeks ago, due in large part to the hassle of flying. On the way back I was in a pretty severe accident that totalled my car. Fortunately neither I nor anyone in my car was hurt, but considering the speed and severity of the accident, a few minor tweaks and it could have easily been a fatality.

    So yup, more people avoiding the airports will most likely cause more trafffic accidents and more deaths.

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  16. mantis says:

    To all the advocates of using dogs – could you take a few minutes and do the calculations for us

    Sure, right after you tell us how much all of these scanning machines will cost, how many trained professionals it takes to operate them, how much maintenance they need, how much that maintenance costs, what the downtime is for common maintenance issues, how much electricity they use in operation, the expected working lifespan of the machines, and how much of an added industry is required to support them.

    Also, while you’re at it, try addressing the fact that these machines aren’t particularly effective at detecting plastic explosives, and dogs are. Also dogs don’t irradiate people.

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  17. matt says:

    IT’s been over a decade but Spain was using dogs when I went through their major airports…

    “So what are the prudes here going to do when technology brings affordable cameras that can take these sorts of images (or better) of people just walking down the street?”

    THey won’t because the scanners actually irradiate people and they won’t allow those materials to be in civilian hands. Look up “how to photoshop xray” if you want the closest method possible…

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  18. vagabond says:

    @Tano… Bomb sniffing dogs cost about $6K… Even if they had to work 4 hour shifts i’m sure it would be less than the scanning machines…

    The airport scanning machines are about $170K per machine…

    Working dog usually work for about 8-10 years before they retire and just become regular old house dogs…

    Using dogs in security is also much more of a deterrent than these scanners… If you see a security dog you know that that dog is not going to miss anything whereas the scanners are still relying on someone seeing something…

    Not to mention that bomb sniffing dogs can smell trace amounts of substances that might not show up on a scanner…

    i think people would feel much more secure around bomb sniffing dogs than they do going through this privacy invading contraption…

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  19. vagabond says:

    i don’t think that all this big hype around beefing up security will stop a person whose is dedicated to breaching security…. Every security system has a weakness and if there are people willing to put in the time and energy to breach security then they will…

    Personally i think that this is all about security contracts and making money and spreading fear among the populace… The more fear you spread the more people want to feel secure… The more people want to feel secure the more of their personal liberties they’ll be willing to trade for that security… And the security corporations who are looking to make a fast buck love it too…

    It’s like living in 1984 (the book, not the year)… George Orwell said ‘America will be the first country in the world to go fascist, democratically’… i’m more scared of the American government and it’s law enforcement bodies than i am of terrorists….

    And i’m not just running off at the mouth… i lived in NYC during the Guiliani administration and on more than a few casual occasions NY’s Finest have been brutal with me due to the racial profiling that was (and continues to be) done in NYC… The 8 times i was arrested during his reign as Mayor were all due to a clerical error that made me feel like i was living in Brazil (the film, not the country)…

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  20. Tano says:

    Thanks vagabond, Do you have a sense of how many dogs would be required to provide the type of coverage that is needed given the volumes involved? And has the issue been discussed by any lawmakers that you know of?

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  21. jd says:

    Forget the traffic. Have you bothered to read the UCSF letter expressing their concerns about the scanners?

    http://www.google.com/search?q=UCSF-letter-to-Holdren-concerning-health-risks-of-full-body-scanner-TSA

    I haven’t walked through one of those things and I likely never will unless those questions are answered.

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  22. vagabond says:

    i’m not sure about how many dogs it would take i’m just throwing some ideas out there to try and walk the fine line between security and personal freedom…

    i spoke to an NYPD dog trainer about this that i met at the vet when i took my dog in for a procedure she needed and he felt the same way that i did about airport security.

    i work in the film industry and a few months back i had an issue with a film i shot in Las Vegas NV. When i left NYC and went through JFK to fly out to LVNV i asked for my film (i was shooting 16mm) to be hand checked. They said sure no problem… swabbed the film and ran it through an analyzer and let me go on my way.

    On my way back to NYC at LVNV it was a whole other ball game and this issue made me even more nervous because the film was exposed and x-rays can affect film… When i asked the TSA officers for a hand check of my film they told it would have to go through the x-ray machine, which didn’t make me feel secure… i asked LVNV why i could get a hand check in NYC/JFK but not one in LVNV? They told me that what JFK did was JFK’s business and that this was LVNV…

    From what i understand the TSA is under the authority of Homeland Security which is a national law enforcement agency but the rules that govern the TSA change from airport to airport… i asked why that could be and didn’t get an answer… They x-rayed my film anyway and everyone else got to feel secure but i wasn’t allowed to feel secure because i had $50K worth of exposed, undeveloped film that went through an x-ray machine…

    The x-rays didn’t damage our project but that didn’t mean i wasn’t sweating it out until i heard back from the lab 4 days later… My point in bringing this up is that if there had been bomb sniffing dogs in the airport this could have all been avoided… TSA would have felt secure that my film was just film and i could feel secure knowing that my film wasn’t x-rayed…

    The other thing about having bomb sniffing dogs is that if there is a device on someone do you want someone touching the device in a pat-down or do you want a dog to sniff it at a safe distance and let you know that something is rotten in Denmark?

    As for any politicians raising this issue? Unless there is a bomb sniffing dog lobby i doubt it because i know there is a lobby for body scanners that’s actively lobbying politicians. i’m sorry if i sound cynical but politicians are made and broken by lobbyists not by voters…

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  23. Steve Verdon says:

    y’know, what we say when we mean – “ok, now all joking aside….”

    You got a real problem bud….

    Actually Tano, I’m not entirely convinced you are joking. And considering you have suggested the libertarian people don’t care about other people around, I think its rather ironic you telling other people they have problems.

    vagabond,

    i’m not sure about how many dogs it would take i’m just throwing some ideas out there to try and walk the fine line between security and personal freedom…

    i spoke to an NYPD dog trainer about this that i met at the vet when i took my dog in for a procedure she needed and he felt the same way that i did about airport security.

    In several of these scanner threads I’ve made the very same suggestion. And the number of dogs can probably be met given that there are 10s or thousands currently in the shelter system just waiting to be killed. Plus dogs have the benefit of being mobile and can check passengers, luggage, planes, and the airport itself.

    Here is the wikipedia entry on detection dogs. And in looking at the accompanying picture, it looks like the dog is an American Pit Bull Terrier. Dog trainer Diane Jessup trained a number of such APBTs for the Washington State Police for detection work. Here is one of the dogs she trained, it is dock diving (jumping off a dock after a ball that has been thrown into the water, its a distance competition). Look at the dog, totally focused on getting to that ball, every line in its body intent on accomplishing that goal and nothing else. Now imagine that dog working to find explosives…which it actually does, that is K9 Scout/X-dog who patrols the U.S./Canada entry points with the Washington State Police.

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  24. Tano says:

    “Actually Tano, I’m not entirely convinced you are joking”

    Well fine. Actually, if you want to deny the fact that I was making a humorous comment, then lets analyze my statement, and your response in a serious vein.

    You quoted me as saying “Hmmm, by the same logic,…”

    Now what do we native English speakers mean when we start a sentence like that? Especially when you realize, of course, that I go on to criticize the basic approach of James’s post. Here, let me break it down for you – it is equivalent to saying:

    “I do not accept your approach on this issue. In an effort to show you how silly your approach is, I am going to apply the logic you use to an analogous situation, then show you how it yields a rather ridiculous outcome. That will hopefully illustrate for you why I think your approach is silly in the first instance.”

    I then go on of course to show that by using James’s logic – that scanner use is causing people to decide to drive, therefore the scanners are responsible for traffic deaths – in other situations where people end up deciding to drive rather than fly – like when fares are raised – we reach the silly outcome of blaming fare hikes for traffic fatalities.

    That was my point Steve. As you can see now, hopefully, I was not accusing airlines of killing people when they raise fares. I was not advocating that they be blamed for that. I was using that as an obviously silly outcome of applying James’s approach, as a way of criticizing that approach.

    So you allowed your loss of temper to screw you up three ways in the space of a few seconds. You apparently got so upset that you forgot the title of this post – that we were indeed talking about killing people. And you completely missed the fact that I was using the “killing” as a sort of reductio absurdum rather than advocating it, and you missed the fact that I presented it in a humorous vein. And then you let yourself go with one of those ranty type performances.

    So yeah Steve. You have a problem. You are a smart guy, and if you could maintain some stability, you could be quite formidable.Consider how little I did to set you off into meltdown. Why would you ever want to shut off your brain and just vent like that in a discussion – your brain does a much better job than your bile.

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