When Safety Features Cost Lives

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A tragedy involving a bus's emergency hatch illustrates a lesson about the "nanny state." But it's not the one you think.

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One of the most disturbing recent stories from the New York area is the death of a 16-year-old high-school student on a party bus. He was struck by a highway overpass near the George Washington Bridge after he opened an emergency hatch. (The on-board party had apparently overwhelmed the bus's air conditioning.)

It's not enough to extend empathy to the victim's traumatized family and classmates. It's also essential to see how, in a supposedly over-regulated society, such things can still happen. Safety technology can have risks of its own. (I've spoken on the topic here.) In this case, the hatches were there not for ventilation, but as legally mandated escape ports if the bus overturned.

Sadly, this isn't the first time apparently life-saving features have proved deadly. USA Today reported of September 11:

To comply with building codes, the World Trade Center since 1996 had been adding locks that made it impossible for passengers to force open the doors of stalled elevators. These locks, called "door restrictors," had been added to about half of the 198 elevators in the twin towers. Nobody is known to have escaped from an elevator locked by a door restrictor. The World Trade Center followed a long-established approach to elevator rescues: Leave people inside stalled elevators until professionals can perform rescues. The elevators had three mechanisms, including the restrictors, designed to prevent people from accidentally falling down elevator shafts. An untold number were still trapped when the buildings collapsed.

The designers of roof emergency exits for buses faced a dilemma. If too difficult to open, the exits might trap passengers in a fire. If too easy, they might tempt partiers who had been drinking. A security guard on the party bus was supposed to prevent that, but could not be everywhere on a double-decker bus. And there's the question of why the federal and state bureaucracies charged with regulating bus design approved a model with as little as one foot of clearance. Overpass crashes are such a common problem for trucks that a single Montreal site averages almost one a week.

Safety comes at a price. A planned warning system for the Montreal overpass, with an emergency parking area, will cost $150,000. Elevator door restrictors should have overrides that can be activated by building staff and first responders -- again, not cheap. I won't speculate about how bus hatches could be made safer, but I doubt manufacturers and operators would be happy with any answer I could give. The tragedy is also a reminder that super-sizing anything brings unexpected risks, because makers don't always know what to test for. Hearings revealed that the Titanic's sea trials, for example, did not adequately test maneuverability, yet there seems to have been no criticism when the ship was put into service.

Why does the nanny state continue to grow, and why do safety regulations proliferate? It's because it's impossible to look victims and surviving family members in the eye, and then cite policy reports with cost-benefit analyses and the value of statistical lives. (I wrote about this aspect of another disaster three years ago here.)

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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