The TSA Is Killing Us

A blog about business and economics.
Nov. 20 2012 9:48 AM

The TSA Is Killing Us

Complaining about airport security is basically universal at this point, but I think people actually continue to underestimate how terrible the status quo is. I'm not sure that a "no security whatsoever" policy would be optimal, but I'm fairly confident it would be superior to what we're doing. As Charles Kenny notes a big part of the problem here is that driving a car a long distance is incredibly risky compared to flying on a plane:

There is lethal collateral damage associated with all this spending on airline security—namely, the inconvenience of air travel is pushing more people onto the roads. Compare the dangers of air travel to those of driving. To make flying as dangerous as using a car, a four-plane disaster on the scale of 9/11 would have to occur every month, according to analysis published in the American Scientist. Researchers at Cornell University suggest that people switching from air to road transportation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks led to an increase of 242 driving fatalities per month—which means that a lot more people died on the roads as an indirect result of 9/11 than died from being on the planes that terrible day. They also suggest that enhanced domestic baggage screening alone reduced passenger volume by about 5 percent in the five years after 9/11, and the substitution of driving for flying by those seeking to avoid security hassles over that period resulted in more than 100 road fatalities.
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Something that I would love to see the Transportation Security Administration, the FBI, the CIA, and whoever else do is pull together an estimate of how many airplanes they think would have been blown up by terrorists if there was no passenger or baggage screening whatsoever. One way of thinking about it is this. If commercial airplanes were no more secure than your average city bus, planes would be blown up as frequently as city buses—which is to say never. I've heard some people postulate that terrorists have a special affection for blowing up planes, but I'm not sure that's right. In the not-too-distant past, Israel had a substantial terrorists-blowing-up-buses problem and had to take countervailing security measures. But unlike Israel, we're not doing anything to secure our buses. It's at least possible that nobody blows up American buses because nobody is trying to blow anything up.

Maybe they have some persuasive argument that zero is too low an estimate. But what's the right number? And does it outweigh the deadly impact of inducing additional highway driving? Outweigh it by enough to be worth the money and the hassle?

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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