TSA patches more holes, causes more car crashes

Two interesting bits this morning about the TSA, both focused on how the Agency might actually be doing more harm than good in their efforts to complete their mission. First up, a story in Business Week suggesting that the TSA is responsible for increasing the number of deaths on the nation’s highways. The general premise is that driving is significantly less safe than flying and the inconveniences and frustrations of dealing with the TSA has caused more people to drive on trips where they might have flown. That increase in cars on the roads translates to an increase in crashes. From the story,

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.

To be fair, the piece is an opinion article. Or at least it appears to be. So there is certainly the other side of the story to be told. Not so sure that makes the situation any better, but the numbers associated with the costs of the current approach to aviation security, both in dollars and in lives, is worth spending some time pondering.

The second bit is most certainly self-serving for me to share, mostly because it includes a clip of me on a national news broadcast. The topic is the TSA’s poor implementation of security related to the barcodes on boarding passes. Having the content of the barcodes in plain text is a bit silly but not really all that bad. Having the text unsigned and unverifiable at the checkpoint is pretty idiotic. Just not a smart way to architect the systems, particularly when the IATA standard for the barcode format supports the ability to have such a signature in the data. Oh, and the TSA absolutely knew about the ability to require the digital signature because they do require it for mobile boarding passes and they know how to check if it is there or not.

My 8 seconds of fame is entertaining, mostly because I had to head from the studio straight from my visit to United on Friday and the only clothes I had with me were the Hawaiian shirts I was wearing during the event. But more scary than entertaining is the explanation the TSA Spokesperson gives at the end of the clip:

To identify something as a vulnerability is to not understand the entire aviation security system. One hole is not going to bring us down because we have so many other patches.

In short, it doesn’t matter how bad any one system is because there are lots of other, equally bad systems out there. And one of them is likely to catch someone trying to cause trouble. It is unfortunate that the Agency seems content to rest on the premise that they don’t have to be very good, so long as they are sufficiently intrusive. That’s not what actually creates a secure environment.

Related Posts:

Never miss another post: Sign up for email alerts and get only the content you want direct to your inbox.

Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. I saw this coverage as it played and am delighted that you’re involved with bringing this issue public. Thanks.

  2. The reason we have the TSA is because the general public needs the reassurance. Many more people will not fly if their perception of the airlines is that it is not safe compared to those who will not fly because they are inconvenience/ pissed off. When only 5% of the people stop flying airlines are in trouble.

  3. That number of people have already stopped flying in certain circumstances, Michael. Letting the inmates run the asylum isn’t the solution to the problem.

  4. Who is talking about letting the inmates run the asylum????

    The reason we have the TSA is because the general public needs the reassurance.

    Just because you or I may like or not like the TSA is not the reason the TSA exists or shouldn’t exist. The reason the TSA exists is because a very significant portion of the public needs to feel that “something” is being done. Don’t read that I am implying in any way that the TSA is doing anything effective. But people who get in their cars and drive but are afraid to fly when even during 2001 they had a much greater chance of being killed while driving to work are not concerned with the rational facts. They need irrational comforting. Unfortunately this is costing the country billions of dollars.

Comments are closed.