Rick Steves on Rethinking the Massive Cost of Airport Security

Great post today on Facebook by Rick Steves about how we need to do a rational job of assigning costs and benefits to our Airport Security apparatus.   Although I agree with him I think a lot of the blame is with … those of us who continue to irrationally fear terrorism more than the *hundreds* of other greater risks around us, many of which we could mitigate very cheaply.   For example a smoker is creating fairly substantial death risk for themselves, and could live longer simply by spending *less* on smoking.   In other areas like auto accidents (which kill hundreds of times the number of people killed in terror incidents), we could simply make sure more people buckle up and fewer drive drunk.   The cost of these measures is trivial but the lives saved would be vastly more than we save with our TSA security measures.

Of course a challenge Rick is not addressing is that the irrationality many of us apply to this topic means that if we DO have terror incidents it will discourage many from flying at all.   This irrational result means that it might actually be good policy to provide more anti-terror measures than you would apply in a more rational world, because people’s fear might wind up creating large scale problems with the global transportation system.   Thus we might need to spend billions more than is rational in order to prevent losing tens of billions from irrational economic decisions.

Still, the moral of the TSA story is that our safety is coming at a cost that may not be sustainable.   Therefore we should start educating the public to be more rational in how they assign risk and reward, and start working towards sustainable safety spending rather than excessive and irrational political spending programs.

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Rick Steves on Facebook:
I’ve been through a lot of airports lately, and I have to say, when people joke about TSA meaning “thousands standing around,” it has a ring of truth. In November, Bloomberg Businessweek reported that we spend about $8 billion a year on scanning machines, all that time-consuming checking, and employing those people who stand between us and our departure gate. And that cost doesn’t even consider the valuable time wasted by travelers who need to allot extra time to cover surprise delays at airport security.

 Sure, we need to spend some money and time on security. But does anyone in government have the nerve to raise their hand and ask, “Could we lighten up here a bit?” or even “Aren’t we going a bit overboard there?” Bloomberg Businessweek reports that entire years go by (such as 2011) when TSA doesn’t spot a single terrorist trying to board an airplane. And then there’s s this staggering statistic: “In fact, extremist Islamic terrorism resulted in just 200 to 400 annual deaths worldwide, outside the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq — the same number…that occur in bathtubs in the US each year.”

 

Following 9/11, there was, understandably, a push to strengthen our airport security measures. But these efforts may be costing us even more lives. According to Cornell University researchers cited in Bloomberg Businessweek, after 9/11, frightened travelers switching from flights to drives resulted in over 200 more traffic fatalities every month. In the long term, due to security hassles, about 5 percent fewer people fly than used to, resulting in even more road fatalities. In other words, far more people have died on the road as an indirect result of 9/11 than actually died on 9/11.

 

Maybe it’s time to come to grips with the risk of terrorism and finally put it in a rational perspective. Many will say, “If TSA and all the security saves just one life, it will be worth it.” The way I see it, wasting money wastes lives. Intimidating people into driving instead of flying wastes lives. A nation can reach a point where its passion for showboat security designed to make people feel safe actually kills them. Security is good, but a cost-benefit awareness is simply smart. What do you think?

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