Federal safety investigators have released a synopsis of their coming final report on the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others on the flight. They found definitively that the safety regulations proposed in the Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant Helicopter Safety Act would not have prevented the deadly crash.
That bill, introduced by Rep. Brad Sherman (D–Calif.) less than a week after the basketball star's death in January 2020, would mandate that all helicopters come equipped with Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS), a technology that warns pilots if they are flying too close to the ground or other obstacles they might not be able to see.
Yet at a Tuesday meeting of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is responsible for investigating transportation accidents and making safety recommendations, investigators said that TAWS would not have prevented the crash that killed Bryant and his fellow passengers.
"It's great technology, we just don't think it applies here," said NTSB investigator Bill English in response to a question about TAWS. English said that the safety technology was most useful in situations where a pilot is in control of his or her vehicle but is unaware of the surrounding terrain.
The crash that killed Bryant in contrast, he said, was a product of the pilot becoming "spatially disorientated" while attempting to fly above cloud cover to avoid hilly terrain he was already aware of. Those cloudy conditions caused the pilot to become confused as to his direction, telling an air traffic controller he was still ascending when in fact he was plummeting to the ground.
"At that point the aircraft is not in control. The pilot doesn't really know which way was up so this type of system [TAWS] would not aid in that situation," said English. "It would likely just be a confusing factor more than anything else."
The irrelevance of TAWS to the crash stands in contrast to the attention the technology received, from both policymakers and the media, immediately following Bryant's death.
Jennifer Homendy, a board member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said in a press conference two days after the crash that "certainly, TAWS could have helped to provide information to the pilot on what terrain the pilot was flying in."
(The NTSB has recommended all helicopters be equipped with TAWS since 2006. The Federal Aviation Administration has declined to implement that recommendation except for helicopter ambulances.)
Sherman went further by saying that if Bryant's helicopter had the technology, "it is likely the tragic crash could have been avoided."
Despite the media attention and advocacy from Vanessa Bryant, Kobe's widow, Sherman's bill stalled in the face of opposition from the helicopter industry.
Sherman lamented this in comments to the Los Angeles Times a couple of weeks ago, saying that "even the death of Kobe Bryant hasn't gotten us where we need to go." The Times reported Tuesday that he was updating his safety legislation to include NTSB recommendations that pilots undergo more simulation training on how to respond to changing weather conditions.
The fact that Sherman's signature mandate would not have saved the people after whom he named his bill should prompt more reflection. Policymaking in response to a tragedy, when many of the facts have yet to come in, is a recipe for imposing ineffective solutions. Worse still, it circumvents the cost-benefit analyses that regulators and legislators should employ when considering costly mandates.
The Times reports that installing TAWS costs upwards of $35,000 per helicopter. If the government is going to require companies to install such a costly system on their vehicles, it should at a minimum be sure it would produce tangible safety benefits that outweigh the compliance costs for private operators and small firms.
Moreover, it's important to consider whether money spent on one expensive technology couldn't be more effectively directed toward other safety solutions.
In an effort to prevent fatal, headline-grabbing train derailments, for instance, the federal government has required rail companies to spend billions adopting positive train control technology to prevent such accidents. But each dollar spent preventing deaths from derailments is a dollar that isn't spent on preventing much more common deaths from collisions at road-rail intersections or from trespassers on tracks.
The NTSB recommends that Island Express Helicopters, the company that was operating the helicopter flight that killed Bryant, participate in the FAA's Safety Management System Voluntary Program, and install flight data monitoring programs on its helicopters and then review that data to identify potential safety issues.
Mandating that the company adopt TAWS, which wouldn't have prevented the accident in question, would leave it with less time and resources to put toward developing safety measures that might have actually made a difference.
It's a truism that bills named after victims make for bad laws. Bills named after celebrity victims usually aren't any better.