The Shame of Transportation: Safety

The long history of transportation also has been a history of a struggle for safety. It's not over.

The recent crash of an AsiaAir Airbus A320, with the loss of 162 lives, highlights one of aviation's lasting shames: The reluctance of air carriers to invest in safety unless they're forced to do so. While no lives would've been saved in the immediate crash, lives are saved over time from the information contained in the so-called black boxes - the cockpit voice recorder and the all-important flight data recorder.

After spending hundreds of millions of dollars, both of the AirAsia jet's black boxes have been recovered in the Java Sea. There is technology that would allow all aircraft to have cockpit conversations and flight data recorded on the ground throughout every flight. But the inhibitions are always the same: blind fear of cost and inertia.

One of the worst examples of this inhibition was the hardening of airliner cockpit doors. Airlines should've put locks and bars on cockpit doors when the first hijackings occurred in the 1960s. Many lives -- and possibly all of the lives on 9/11 - could've been saved, but governments dithered and airlines worried about cost.

In Washington, D.C., one life has just been lost in a subway incident. Shortly after leaving a city station, a Virginia-bound train came to a halt in a tunnel which began filling with smoke. Passengers in the darkened cars were choking and panicking; some lost consciousness and many were taken to D.C. hospitals.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said it was an "electrical arcing event," involving cables that power the third rail. Shamefully, there appeared to be inadequate training of personnel on the system and poor response from both the District of Columbia fire department and the fire officials on the system. Immediate question: If the electrical arcing problem was known, why wasn't there an engineering fix? Cost, perhaps?

Every day on subway systems around the world, tens of millions of passengers descend into the ground in the belief that no expense has been spared to ensure that they emerge at their destination. In Washington, the risk was known and not apparently addressed.

There are millions of years of subway operating experience. Is there a global operating safety organization? Hopefully the NTSB, one of the more impressive government agencies, will point the way.

But is pointing the way enough? For decades, the NTSB has highlighted issues involving the safety of buses and little has happened.

More and more Americans are riding buses, which are marvels of comfort and can be the most efficient and economical way to travel between cities. With restrooms, wi-fi and reclining seats, buses are mode of transportation to be reckoned with.

But are buses as safe as possible in the event of an accident? Seat belts have not been installed and roofs have not been hardened against rollovers, which the NTSB has recommended for years.

I thought about this on a wintry night recently, when I packed a friend into a bus traveling from Providence, RI, to New York City. One had to wonder about the driver, who was upset about passengers who didn't have printed copies of their electronic tickets and about all the heavy baggage that he had to load by himself. He had much to worry about before getting behind the wheel on an icy, windy night for a four-hour drive.

It would've been more reassuring if the vehicle had been equipped with rollover protection and the passengers had seat belts to buckle up for safety. Fate, we know, does not like to be tempted. Yet thousands of buses take to the roads daily without being a safe as they could be.

Industries fight safety or environmental protection because of a blind fear of cost. But in safety and environmental protection, the cost is always higher for not doing what has to be done than for doing it. Those who provide transportation in the air, on the surface or under the ground, need goading to do the right thing.