Is Airport Security Killing 500 People a Year?

So asserts cryptographer and security critic Bruce Schneier in a recent smack at the costly security theater inflicted on us at airports. “Security theater” is actually too kind a term; it makes light of a heavy burden that includes not only enormous cost and trouble with little benefit, but the erosion of dignity, civility, personal liberty, and a healthy balance between government power and individual rights. (In disclosure I must say I feel this more keenly every time I fly.) Schneiier recently debated former Transportation Safety Authority administrator Kip Hawley on the issue, and finds Hawley’s argument unconvincing:

[Hawley] wants us to trust that a 400-ml bottle of liquid is dangerous, but transferring it to four 100-ml bottles magically makes it safe. He wants us to trust that the butter knives given to first-class passengers are nevertheless too dangerous to be taken through a security checkpoint. He wants us to trust the no-fly list: 21,000 people so dangerous they’re not allowed to fly, yet so innocent they can’t be arrested. He wants us to trust that the deployment of expensive full-body scanners has nothing to do with the fact that the former secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff, lobbiesfor one of the companies that makes them. He wants us to trust that there’s a reason to confiscate a cupcake (Las Vegas), a 3-inch plastic toy gun (London Gatwick), a purse with an embroidered gun on it (Norfolk, VA), a T-shirt with a picture of a gun on it (London Heathrow) and a plastic lightsaber that’s really a flashlight with a long cone on top (Dallas/Fort Worth).

Additionally, there’s actual physical harm: the radiation from full-body scanners still not publicly tested for safety; and the mental harm suffered by both abuse survivors and children: the things screeners tell them as they touch their bodies are uncomfortably similar to what child molesters say.

In 2004, the average extra waiting time due to TSA procedures was 19.5 minutes per person. That’s a total economic loss—in –America—of $10 billion per year, more than the TSA’s entire budget.

So it’s ridiculous, insulting, stupid, dehumanizing, a sop to friends of those in power, an erosion of civil liberties, and a huge waste of time and money. But is it actually killing us?

Schneier says it is, by virtue of traffic deaths; he cites work by  security analysts John Mueller and Mark Stewart in their book Terror, Security, and Money. Here’s the passage:

The increased automobile deaths due to people deciding to drive instead of fly is 500 per year. Both of these numbers are for America only, and by themselves demonstrate that post-9/11 airport security has done more harm than good.

He doesn’t say how they got that figure. I’m assuming it’s from taking (hopefully accurate) estimates of how many miles are being driven by those who shirk the security lines for their cars, then deriving 500 deaths from the average number of deaths per 100,000 miles.*

If they’re right, though, then the inefficiencies of post-911 airport security, by putting more people on the road, have already killed more people right here in the U.S. than the 9/11 attacks did. In any case, if these measures do put people on the road, a sane, rational policy (I know that’s asking a lot) would take that into account.

via Schneier on Security: Harms of Post-9/11 Airline Security.

Note added 4/6/12: *The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says there are roughly 1.14 deaths per 100,000,000 traffic miles; thus it would require about 43,900,000 traffic miles to produce 500 deaths. That sounds like a lot of miles; it would be about 14% of the roughly 305 billion miles Americans drive each year. The NHTSA data I found does show an increase in miles driven after 2001, but  that increase seems roughly in line with prior annual increases in traffic. Then again, I believe those post-2001 surges took place amid massive drops in miles flown and despite hikes in fuel prices, which usually decrease driving. Doubtless other variables come into play as well, and I’m not sure how Mueller and Stewart parsed them. I’ve written Mueller and Schneier asking how those figures were derived, and will post that here if and when I get it.

4/6/12, 1:23pm EDT: John Mueller, author of the book from which Schneier cited the 500 deaths per year figure, kindly and quickly responded to an email request for the source of that information. It comes from a paper by Cornell University researchers Garrick Blalock, Vrinda Kadiyali, and Daniel H. Simon, “The Impact of Post-9/11 Airport Security Measures on the Demand for Air Travel,” published in The Journal of Law and Economics in November 2007. PDF here. Here’s the relevant passage:

If the inconvenience of security deters travelers from flying, some of them might choose to travel by automobile instead. As is consistent with our finding that the negative effect of baggage screening is greatest for trips of less than 500  miles, we expect this substitution would be especially likely on short trips, for which driving is most feasible. Because air transportation is safer than road transportation, the increase in driving could lead to more traveler fatalities. In fact, we have shown that the substitution of road for air transportation following 9/11 led to an increase in driving-related fatalities (Blalock, Kadiyali, and Simon forthcoming). As part of that analysis, we estimated the reduced-form relationship between air passenger volume and driving-related deaths. Using fatalities in commercial vehicles to control for time trends, weather patterns, economic conditions, and unobserved highway conditions, we found that a decrease of 1 million enplanements leads to an increase of 15 driving-related fatalities. Applying that relationship to the estimated reduction in originating passenger volume due to baggage screening, we estimate that in the fourth quarter of 2002 approximately 129 individuals died in automobile accidents that resulted from travelers substituting driving for flying in response to the inconvenience associated with baggage screening.  n16

Although both our revenue and fatalities estimates are very rough approximations, the numbers are of an order of magnitude that warrant attention. These costs must be weighed against the difficult-to-measure benefits of better security.

And here a related footnote:

n16  To calculate the number of fatalities, we multiply the estimated number of trips not taken because of baggage screening, 3.2 million, by the number of enplanements associated with each trip (2.7). This calculation gives us the total reduction in enplanements associated with baggage screening. Finally, we multiply this figure by the number of additional driving-related fatalities resulting from a decrease of 1 million enplanements, 15, to arrive at our figure of 129 additional driving-related fatalities.

The Mueller figure (500/year) that Schneier uses is extrapolated from the 129/quarter-year figure calculated for 2002. As Blalock et alia note, that figure is rough, but “of an order of magnitude that warrants attention.”

I’m certainly convinced of that.


30 responses

  1. Yes, by pushing people off of the more safe airplanes and onto the less safe roads, the TSA folks who advise us to drive if you don’t want to fly are killing more people than they save.

    TSA’s “minor” inconvenience of 19.5 minutes per passenger can also be measured in lives: 19.5 minutes times 2,000,000 passengers per day costs us 74 years of lifespan wasted per day. 

    Every day, TSA wastes a life.

    •  I did almost the same calculation as soon as I read this,   using data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics they claimed about 632 million passenger-flights for 2010 within the US, times 19.5 minutes gave me around 12.324 billion minutes,  divided by the 525948 minutes in a year is roughly 23,400 years or about 300,   seventy-eight year lifetimes each year.      Not identical to your figure but given the quick and rough nature of the calculation, pretty close. 

  2. I can’t immediately vouch for Schneier’s numbers, but they sound about reasonable, based on the various studies made post 9/11 on the same phenomenon when people ditched flying out of fear, taking the much more risky car journey instead. Exact estimates varied across studies, but they all concluded that more Americans died in the months following 9/11 because of this faulty risk perception than died in the 9/11 attacks itself. Fear kills.

  3. Betteridge’s law of Headlines – “Any headline which ends in a Question mark can be answered by the word ‘no'”.

    • I think that law generally applies, which is why I seldom use it; it’s usually deployed for a truly doubtful proposition. In this case, the assertion is fairly well-sourced, and while the # may be different, any significant diversion of travel from plane (or our neglected railroad tracks) to cars will surely generate traffic deaths. This is something that should be accounted for amid the craze for security theater, and is not. It might be that some examination — which I’m trying to help generate here — will show that 500 is not the best number to arrive at. But we should know what it is, and account for it in how we approach airport security. If it’s 300 a year, for instance, then the security measures have already generated almost as many deaths as the original 9/11 attacks did. 

      •  The first question that comes to my mind is what number of deaths is acceptable? If he is off by an order of magnitude and it is only 50 deaths/year does that make his point less valid? I think the relatives and loved ones of the prematurely dead would not think so.

      • You make a fair point, David, and I don’t mean to accuse you of doing a poor job – Well, as much as I wouldn’t have gone with that headline, I’m sure you weighed it up and felt it was the best choice, just as I would before submitting an article. I do apologize most sincerely if you feel I’ve insulted you.

        However, while your article is well sourced, and I feel you’ve done a good job, I feel the conclusion that you’re writing about is a little tenuous – I think that to prove the TSA’s policies are really killing 500 people a year, a clear connection has to be proven, after all, it’s a pretty damned serious accusation.

        But, the way they seem to have tried to prove this conclusion, it could almost apply equally to saying that getting out of bed kills thousands a year, because people have to get out of bed to drive to work unless they’re either in a rough spot and sleeping in their car. Both facts are true, and in both cases it seems reasonable on the face of it, but that does not mean the two are connected.

        This whole thing – to me, at least – just reeks of affirming the consequent, as follows: When people drive, sometimes they get in accidents. If they can’t get on a flight because of airport security, they probably drive somewhere and some of them get in accidents. Therefore, airport security is killing these people.

      • Blalock et al. are able to show the connection between increased security and reduced air travel since they could compare sites which had implemented TSA-style security and sites which had not.  As security deployed to more airports, the comparison between intervention and non-intervention is harder to discern, and they felt they would not be able to measure the effect, but in the transition period, it the differences in deployment made it easy to measure.

        There are lots of things that have deadly, but small, statistically
        measurable effects.  You can’t know for certain that failing to
        vaccinate your kid for measles killed his classmate’s younger and more
        vulnerable sister, but failing to vaccinate does increase that risk and
        should share some of the responsibility.

        Whether or not one can empirically prove the connection between increased security hassle and a marginal increase in traffic in the absence of a control group, the risks of both modes are real.  Advising one to choose the more risky option over the less risky option is bad advice, yet TSA supporters advise people to take the measurably more risky option of driving instead of flying:“don’t+fly”    In terms of safety, adding overhead and making a 30 minute short-hop flight take longer and be less convenient than driving is malpractice.

  4. Are fuel-efficient cars killing people? By encouraging more miles per dollar, people are driving more and therefore killing themselves. This needs to be questioned!

  5. David, I doubt the 500 deaths/year figure for the reasons you question it, however, the quote at the beginning of your article is a most succinct narrative on the idiocy that is the TSA mission.
    Those who champion the TSA and their Gestapo-like tactics often take refuge in the curious logic that there have been no terror attacks on airlines because the terrorists are afraid they would be caught, so they have not attempted any.  There have been at least two (the Shoe Bomber and the Underwear Bomber) and they were not ‘caught’ by the TSA; they were inept, thus unsuccessful.I believe the principle reason we have not seen additional attempts is that the terror organizations realize that they have already won a significant psychological battle and just through fear alone are causing us to spend money and adopt onerous regulations that chip away at our freedom and happiness.  It now costs them nothing to cause us grief, the TSA does it for them.

    It may well be that the TSA has prevented a self-radicalized wannabe or two from trying to sabotage an airliner.  Of course we will never know (and neither will the TSA). However, if the terrorists really wanted to bring down an airliner, there ways to accomplish such.  Ways that all the TSA’s horses and all the TSA’s men could neither detect nor prevent. 

  6. It would be useful for someone without skin in the game to do an analysis of the actual “safety” gains vs. losses from the TSA overreaching since 9/11.  I don’t have ANY idea what the figure is, but I’d be willing to bet that at least SOME people die every year just due to the increased TSA oversight.  Yes, that’s just a hunch, not a scientifically-derived figure, but it seems like it’s unavoidable, even if traffic only blipped up .1%, that would be a death or two every year.

    You always have to weigh options; if it turns out that the TSA prevented 3-4 hijackings that would kill hundreds, and in turn cost us a dozen lives, we might have to suck it up and accept the costs.  But we ALSO have to factor in the unnumbered costs to civil liberty and time (we only have so many minutes in our limited number of days, after all, so an hour lost is like a “fraction of a death” in some ways), and then we, as a society, could start making rational choices about security.

    But as long as we believe that perfect security is even possible, and as long as we allow propaganda, fear, and veiled lobbyist interests paraded as “fact” on the network news to substitute for evidence, we’ll be unable to get away from “security theater” and move on to a real, balanced security policy.

  7. I find that doing nothing but complaining about the security checks and not offering an effective alternative is deconstructive. I feel liberties are being stepped on as well, but everybody is completely against security checks until their plane is hijacked. Its a little to late to change your mind on security at that point. We have to stopped complaining and start introducing viable alternatives that are effective and fair. 

    • I believe the viable alternative is to move airport security back toward pre-9/11 scale. As many have noted, the measures on matching checked baggage to passengers on board; the armored door; and the de facto recruitment of passengers as enforcers has made it clear that it will be almost impossible for hijackers to fly planes into targets. The rest is highly inefficient.

      • It’s obvious that pre 9/11 security didn’t work. And if we fall back into old ways then the same exploits from before will again be available to terrorists. Just like computer security, real life security needs to evolve in order to be secure. And just as in computer security, there is no 100% protection, we are merely attempting to reduce the risk by as much as possible. We need to strike a balance between security and liberty, a very difficult thing to do.

      • So far, TSA security is primarily reactive “somebody did X, so we must prevent X”, which is why you have to take off your shoes, and they fondle your balls.

        How about when somebody stuffs a small amount of C4 up their ass, then tries to explode it on a plane?  Will you be OK with everybody being anal-probed, “just in case”?

      • The entire country is reactive. Nowhere in government or any corporation is there pro-activeness. And somebody shoving C4 up their ass is a very real threat that is not easily thwarted. Look at the war on drugs. We spend billions every year and can’t stop drug mules from entering the country with drugs in their ass. This is where we need to re-think security before this scenario appears.

      •  Its not at all obvious that post-TSA security works.

        As a quick example, you could put 5 times the TATP the underwear bomber used into a magic baggie, and tuck a metal blasting cap where the sun doesn’t shine and TSA security would let you walk through unmolested. 

        We’re not getting better security for our liberty tradeoff, we’re just getting less liberty.

      • Agreed, we are getting less liberty in exchange for supposed security. That is the very foundation of the argument. But the question to be answered is how do we get both?
        I didn’t in anyway insinuate that post 9/11 security is obviously better, I stated that pre 9/11 security obviously doesn’t work. It may be just as broken now as before, but without independent research into what kind of attempted security breaches have been thwarted, no matter how small or big, in both security era’s, we won’t know for sure. The news doesn’t tell us that, its focused on negativity and so we always see the failure of such security and never the successes of said security.

    •  There’s lots of viable alternatives:  We could armor the cockpit doors and tell folks not to cooperate with terrorists.    Oh, we already did that post-9/11 and pre-TSA.   The rest is a veneer of in-“effective” CYA security theater.

      And what do you mean by effective?  TSA can’t reliably (>80%?  >50%?  >20%?) find the guns, knives, bottles of water they think they need to confiscate, so they’d need to be 2-5 times more reliable to be “effective”.  We could be far more effective in saving lives by spending the millions of passenger-minutes per day training schoolchildren in first aid, or passengers in self defense.  In terms of passengers in a hijack situation, I think a group of passengers armed with 2″ penknives would be far more “effective” than the current alternative.

      Further, if TSA actually managed to be 100% effective, wouldn’t we be seeing the *mythical* terrorists exploding wheely-bag claymores in out in TSA’s “not my responsibility” zone in the checkpoint line or bag claim?   Explosions at crowded checkpoints is what happens in places with real terrorists.

      Schneier’s comments illustrate the complete ineffectiveness of TSA in its nominal mission.  Good opportunities abound.  You could easily replace TSA with something more effective, like giving each TSA worker a safety vest and having them repaint our road markers and signs to reduce road accidents.  If that saves even a miniscule 1% of the 40,000 people per year who die on our roads, they’ll be more effective there than we could ever expect at TSA.

      • Let’s not forget that TSA stands for Transportation Security Administration, not Transportation Safety Administration. There is a different administration for that and if we need to combine them to save money and lives, so be it. I am simply arguing that our previous security and current security efforts are insufficient and wasteful in some respects. The absence or reduction of security does not make you more secure. We need to be more creative and attempt to stay one step ahead of the terrorist. And let’s not forget that a large number of those killed on roads are due to drunk driving. I don’t see how painting lines will help reduce that risk.

      •  I’ll agree that our current security efforts are wasteful, but it is not at all clear that TSA’s efforts produce significantly or measurably more security.  TSA should have to do more than say “9/11” or “if it saves just one life…” to justify an expenditure of 8B$/year and 40,000,000 passenger-minutes per day and 480,000 worker-hours per day. 

        If we don’t/can’t know for sure that post TSA security is better, why not spend the money where it will save lives?  8,000,000,000 dollars could have bought 320 half-million-dollar ambulances or fire trucks for each of our 50 states last year. 

        I’m positive we’d get more useful security from investments in resilience rather than paying folks to confiscate water bottles.

      • True, but if we take all that away and sit back to see what happens then we will have become reactive once again, which is how we got into this mess in the first place. I would rather see that budget go to NASA and science foundations rather than being wastefully spent. But the reality is that when you roll back security measures, terrorists will ramp up their attacks testing the lessened security. We will then have opened ourselves to another national tragedy that takes thousands of lives in a few moments. I’m not for continuing wasteful spending, but just cutting security is not saving anyone’s life either. We need to figure out how to assess these measures by testing them ourselves and refining what works and eliminate what doesn’t. These are steps not being taken or even looked at at this point in time. There should be a security board that is tasked with purposely attempting to breach security for assessment reasons. Then perhaps we can glean the information we need to make more effective, efficient security.

      • Tyson. Do you really think a terrorist trying to hold up a plane is going to survive longer than 5 minutes in today’s world?

        You may be surprised to know that anyone who gets onto an airplane is already aware of 9/11 and at least half the passengers could reasonably be expected to take instant action.

        9/11 killed hijacking stone-dead, at least in the United States.

  8. One aspect not mentioned is that the money now spent on TSA is money that could be spent on more productive uses, like jobs that actually produce something useful, or services for those who are suffering in the current economy, or if you are of the tea party persuasion, even tax cuts.

    In south Florida the library budget got cut from 30 million to 3. Personally I would rather take my chance with the butter knives.

  9. The United States is borrowing money from China.  So much we are about to default.  This is a perfect “cost” that the US GOVT could avoid.  Avoiding costs is a great way to get out of debt.  The numbers and logic are very solid.  Great article!  The douche bag that is lobbying for the company that makes these scanners should be held accountable, publicly.  We should analyze his bank accounts for correlations between his profiting, and the “over-the-top” TSA waste of money, space, time, and civil liberties.  

  10. I wouldn’t say so. We defiantly need to do something about TSA though considering its such a freaking joke compared to most other security forces across the globe.

  11. The article doesn’t take into account the lives that could potentially be saved by each real threat caught by TSA measures at airports. Is it actually 500 lives that are wasted? Probably not. The figure should be closer to, if not less than, zero.

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