Free-Range Kids

What a Suicidal Pilot Can Teach Us About Trying to Predict All Risk

Watch out when folks play the "safety card." Consider what we might lose in its pursuit.

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Germanwings
Juergen Lehle (albspotter.eu)

Like everyone else, I wish that the suicidal Germanwings pilot had been stopped from boarding the plane. I even think it makes sense for Europe to copy our "two people in the cockpit at all times" rule. Nonetheless,  I love this essay by Stacey Gordon on her blog Xray Vision about the impossibility of predicting and preventing every tragedy:

After every tragedy that involves numerous casualties has been analyzed from every conceivable angle; after it has been Monday morning quarterbacked to death by the 24 hours news cycle, a mantra is born. It is always the same question, over and over again.  Whether it's a school shooting or the crash of an airliner, the chant has become: How can we keep this exact circumstance from happening again?

The truth is; it is only possible in retrospect….

The litigious society we live in now sees negligence at every turn, demanding that somehow, someone should have seen it coming.  Every tragedy is boiled down to a mere lack of vigilance, the implication being, if somehow we could "increase" our vigilance enough, fate would be assuaged and safety assured.

Risk management is an oxymoron.

This is dangerous and superstitious thinking.  The scary truth is, we can't foresee or prevent every calamity, no matter how cautious, no matter how many rules, regulations and government security organizations we create.  Our anger and our pain drive us to demand that some "one" or some "thing" be held accountable. We demand action for the future, because in our arrogance we presume that it will tip the scales in our favor.

In the end, no amount of dancing for lawyers will prevent heartbreak and catastrophe.

We could never fully account for the unintended consequences of every precaution we implement….

Terrorists busting down your cockpit doors?

Make the doors stronger, unbreakable from the outside.

So unbreakable, that a suicidal co-pilot may now effectively lock a pilot out of the cockpit.

Read the rest here.  Stacey is not advocating complacency when it comes to safety. In fact, she sent me a little  follow-up to her post that is so great, I have to reprint it, too:

There are certain dangers or threats that we should mitigate because 1) They happen with a certain frequency and 2) The mitigation does not appreciably diminish our quality of life. (seatbelts, helmets etc…) 

Sadly, many are ignoring these qualifications and are demanding that every awful event result in some law, plan, or procedure that will protect us from "the next time." We cannot live this way and truly be a free people. We are  vulnerable… Let's just accept that vulnerability and live free.   I do not have children but I am a fan of Free Range Kids because I'm a big believer in freedom and personal choice.  Whether or not Lenore intended to become a political activist, I see her on the cutting edge of the battle between freedom on the one hand the loss of our rights in the name of unattainable, perfect security.  

Political activist or not, I agree: The demand for perfect safety steamrolls over everything else in life. Watch out when folks play the "safety card." Consider what we might lose in its pursuit.

This post was originally published at Free-Range Kids.

NEXT: Interviewing the Viet Cong

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  1. Risk management is an oxymoron.

    No, it is not. You can manage risk…Risk elimination is impossible.

    I think that is what was meant. Or, at least I hope.

    1. Bingo.

      The trick is that, when you start trying to reduce risk at the margins, your countermeasures start creating their own risks which may or may not be a net reduction.

      Example:

      To make sure we didn’t have air bubbles in IV lines, we tasked two people with responsibility for checking the line. Redundant system, right? Bound to be better, right?

      Wrong. When two people are responsible for something, they can both fall into the trap of thinking the other one took care of it. Overlapping responsibility becomes a gap in compliance.

      1. I am so uncomfortable reading that. Needles I’m fine with, but making a double-red cell donation earlier this year had me squirming and shuddering.

      2. The trick is that, when you start trying to reduce risk at the margins, your countermeasures start creating their own risks which may or may not be a net reduction.

        For another example, this time from aviation, there appear to be zero cases where passenger supplemental oxygen masks have ever saved anyone from death or injury. Pilots have their own oxygen, and standard procedure in a cabin depressurization is to rapidly descend to breathable air.

        But in trying to address this very marginal risk, complicated passenger supplemental oxygen systems and the procedures around them cost 110 lives in the crash of ValuJet 592.

    2. Amen.

      Risk management fails because the vast majority of folks don’t understand it. They think it’s, as Swiss said, risk elimination. If we were to eliminate all risk, nothing (quite literally) would ever be accomplished. In actuality, RM is a balancing act (cost benefit) between risk and the potential benefits gained by taking the risk. In this equation, you need to look at magnitude of the potential catastrophe but the probability of the catastrophe occurring while you are taking said risk.

      1. I should have clarified – “risk elimination” is not impossible in all cases…risk avoidance (not doing something) can be a legitimate option.

        But I don’t think “we are never going to use airplanes again, so as to avoid risk of intentional crashes” really works out too well.

    3. She may be confused as to what risk management is because she describes the application of it in her follow up. (Helmets,seat belts)

    4. That’s what I was coming here to pust, though not as eloquently as you.

  2. “It is useless to try to plan for the unexpected . . . by definition!” – A. Hitchcock

  3. I even think it makes sense for Europe to copy our “two people in the cockpit at all times” rule.

    The best you can do is mandate procedures that make it difficult for a single person to be able to (in this situation) down an aircraft. And hope your employees follow procedure.

    1. Perhaps we should not lock cockpit doors in the first place.

      1. WHY DO YOU WANT THE TERRORISTS TO WIN!

        /TSA

  4. Watch out when folks play the “safety card.”

    What to do when the government plays the “safety card”?

  5. Nothing is safe.

    You can make things “safer”. But “safer” comes with exponential growth in cost.

  6. We could never fully account for the unintended consequences of every precaution we implement?.

    Terrorists busting down your cockpit doors?

    Make the doors stronger, unbreakable from the outside.

    So unbreakable, that a suicidal co-pilot may now effectively lock a pilot out of the cockpit.

    I understand what Ms. Gordon is trying to say, but this is a bad example. This scenario, like 9/11 itself, was obviously possible, if not probable. The “Top Men” lack both imagination and analytical skills.

    1. Well, US regulators actually imposed rules to deal with this “probable” hazard. The Europeans didn’t.

    2. Not probable? It happened with EgyptAir Flight 990 in 1999.

      1. And in that case, the first officer plunged the aircraft into the ocean with the captain opposing him on the controls IIRC.

      2. Poor phrasing. *possible, and even probable.*

      3. Poor phrasing. *possible, and even probable.*

      4. Out of how many flights completed without this occurrence between 1999 and now?

      5. “Not probable? It happened with EgyptAir Flight 990 in 1999.”

        You have obviously forgotten, Jerry, that nobody could have predicted what happened on 11 September 2001.

        NOBODY.

        This is why you should only get your information from mainstream media outlets or directly from White House sources.

        1. This sarcastic rant is for Rich as well.

      6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AC_25.1309-1

        Extremely Improbable, Extremely Remote, Remote, or Probable

        An Extremely Improbable failure condition is one so unlikely that it is not anticipated to occur during the entire operational life of all airplanes of one type. Quantitatively, these probability terms are define as follows: Extremely Improbable (10?9 or less), Extremely Remote (10?7 or less), Remote (10?5 or less), Probable (more than 10?5).

        Suicide-by-pilot events do not happen more often that once every 100,000 flight hours (not probable). So these occurrences are remote or even extremely remote. I am to lazy to dig up the statistics to see if they are extremely improbable but they might be.

    3. This scenario, like 9/11 itself, was obviously possible, if not probable.

      And will happen with such infrequency, that it’s really not worth worrying about.

      1. One must consider the stakes as well as the probability.

        Oh, and Murphy’s Law.

        1. One must consider the stakes as well as the probability.

          True, you must. But if it only happens a couple of times a century, it’s not worth spending a fortune to fix or even worrying about. It’s a freak occurrence. Now if it’s a simple, inexpensive fix, sure, why not? …this won’t be.

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    1. “It sounds unbelievable but you wont forgive yourself if you don’t check it out.”

      Incorrect.

      1. I didn’t check it out and I’ve forgiven myself already.

  8. We could never fully account for the unintended consequences of every precaution we implement?.
    .
    Thomas Sowell often writes about “trade-offs”, the idea that you have to account for the costs of the benefits when you’re doing a cost/benefit analysis, and that many of the costs are hidden. A good example was the airlines adopting the safety requirement that even infants have their own seat – calculated to save something like .2 lives per year – when the cost of the extra seat forced more parents to drive rather than fly and thereby doomed an untold number of infants because driving is far more risky than flying.
    .
    My general rule is that anybody claiming to be doing it “because if it saves just one life…” is making a direct emotional appeal probably because there is neither logical nor economic appeal in their proposal. (And if they claim to be doing it “for the children” you can forget about the “probably” part of that.)

  9. Airplane hijackings and intentional crashes are easy to prevent: just switch to fully autonomous, pilot-less planes. Taking off from an airport and flying and landing at a different airport is far easier than driving across the country, which an autonomous car just did.

    Until SkyNet takes over the plane piloting, of course.

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