This week I linked to a post by Bruce Schneier where he explained how post-9/11 increased airport security led to more deaths than terrorist attacks have cuased. That’s because people switched from flying (short haul routes) to driving with the increased hassle and time taken by security.
That predictably led to some consternation in the comments and in a barrage of emails. One of the smartest responses I got pointed out that overall traffic fatalities are on the decline.
Now, the statistic may get overused or there may be overclaims about what it says, but I’ve read John Mueller (Woody Hayes Chair of National Security Studies, and Professor of Political Science at Ohio State University) on this issue and the post appears to be based on sound research. And there’s not a claim that I’ve seen about traffic fatalities overall rising.
Mueller cites data which suggests that the more cumbersome security screening process that went into place post-9/11 led a subset of people to make the decision to drive rather than fly on short-haul routes.
And since driving is not as safe as flying, a certain number of them got into traffic accidents and died (who would otherwise not have died had they flown). They calculate the order of magnitude as a few hundred people per year.
And so the claim that more people died from traffic fatalities as a result of flying instead of driving, a decision they made because of more cumbersome security screening, would be correct and that the number of fatalities is greater than the number of people killed by terrorism is also likely correct.
I do think that the fair and reasonable counter argument is that what this data shows is not reflective of current TSA security practice. In the time after 9/11 security lines were much much longer than they generally are today.
A decade ago 40 minute security lines at Dulles at 5pm on a Thursday or Friday afternoon were commonplace. Those long lines, while they certainly happen they are no longer as commonplace. So it is no longer likely (though I do not have data on this) that the same trade-off is happening between taking short haul flights and driving, and so you can no longer attribute the same number of traffic fatalities to the screening process.
It can be simultaneously true that “more people died as a result of TSA screening than died in terrorist attacks” and also true that this phenomenon is not continuing (though as I say I do not know of research on this latter point and have not myself tried to piece together data so it is just a hypothesis).
I have also written by the way that I do not really blame the TSA as such for the current state of screening.
I actually think that there are people there who would like to focus their resources on security rather than security theater,
The political environment simply will not let them do that. They recognize that focusing on small threats takes resources away from focusing on real threats, but when they announce a change political opportunists jump on them and they back down. There’s ton of waste and bureaucratic mission creep to criticize them for.
I do not like the nude-o-scopes but millimeter wave scanners are better than backscatter, and the software they use to address privacy concerns is a real improvement as well. Not that these really foil terrorists, but they are less intrusive than what the TSA was doing before (a fairly low bar to exceed).
Their behavior detection programs are silly because a few weeks of training does not mean you have an Israeli model, you cannot just scale what’s done in Tel Aviv (one medium-sized airport) across the entire US in a meaningful way in a short period of time if it would be desirable to do so.
I do think the research behind the claim appears sound – the question is what you want to do with the claim that is at issue.