We have entered the sixth stage of grief following the tragic deaths of basketball star Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and seven others in a Sunday helicopter crash: legislation.
On Thursday, Rep. Brad Sherman (D–Calif.) introduced the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act, which would mandate that all helicopters come installed with a Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS). This technology warns pilots if they are descending too quickly or flying to close to the ground or other obstacles.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the helicopter that Bryant and his fellow passengers were on did not have such a system on board.
Ever since a 2004 helicopter crash, the NTSB—which investigations transportation accidents and recommends safety improvements to regulators—has pressured the Federal Aviation Administration to require helicopters carrying six or more people to come equipped with TAWS. So far, the agency has only required it for air ambulances.
"Had this system been on the helicopter, it is likely the tragic crash could have been avoided," claims a press release put out by Sherman's office.
That statement is premature, given what we know about Sunday's accident.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the helicopter carrying Bryant and his fellow passengers had been flying over hilly terrain in fog. Its pilot ascended rapidly to get out of a cloud bank, then started making a left turn before losing contact with air traffic control. The helicopter reportedly descended 2,000 feet before crashing at a high speed into a hillside.
So far, the NTSB has declined to say whether TAWS would have prevented Sunday's crash. Lead investigator Bill English told Fox News that it's not clear if "TAWS and this scenario are related to each other."
One former NTSB air crash investigator, Gregory Feith, told The New York Times that TAWS might have been useful in avoiding Sunday's crash, but that the system could also have produced a lot of false warnings a pilot may have ignored.
"With what the pilot was doing with Kobe Bryant, it would be beneficial, but when you're following a highway with hills nearby, you get false warnings. And with false warnings, you tend to tune them out," Feith said.
Helicopter pilot Brian Alexander similarly told Fox News that if the crash were the result of deteriorating weather conditions and the pilot's own disorientation, having TAWS installed wouldn't have helped much.
At a minimum, lawmakers should wait to learn whether TAWS would have prevented Sunday's crash before they use said crash to justify mandating the technology.
Legislators and safety regulators should also weigh the potential safety benefits of installing TAWS on all helicopters against the costs of doing so, particularly if those costs crowd out other, more impactful safety improvements.
Not doing that crucial cost-benefit analysis often results in mandates for flashy new technology that would have prevented the most recent high-profile incident, while neglecting mundane but more effective safety measures.
A good example is the federal government's push to get rail carriers to adopt positive train control (PTC)—a technology that prevents derailments by speeding trains—in the wake of a January 2018 derailment in Washington state that killed three people. The deaths from these derailments are a tiny fraction of rail deaths, the vast majority of which happen when trains collide with trespassers or with vehicles at highway crossings. Money spent on PTC could go instead to fencing, double-arm crossing guards at highway-rail intersections, and other improvements that actually address the most frequent rail deaths.
It's a mistake to impose rush such a mandate into place without considering the trade-offs, whether you're talking about trains or helicopters.