Thursday, September 03, 2009

Driving is safer than flying, they say, even though it doesn't seem that way because plane crashes resulting in dozens or hundreds of deaths are big news but everyone ignores minor car accidents. I'm not sure if this is primarily attributable to the media or human nature or what, but this tendency makes one part of my job harder and more frustrating than it should be.

In 2004 and 2005, two particular passenger boats capsized, one in Baltimore Harbor and the other in a lake in New York State. (Bizarrely enough, now that I think of it, I might have been only five miles from that body of water at the time*.) Between the two accidents, 25 people died and more were injured. In both cases, the boats were operating way outside existing safety regulations.

Among other things, the accidents called attention to the fact that the current standards for passenger weight were set back in the 1960s, and since then people have, to put it delicately, got fat. I'm on the team assigned to write the regulation that will fix this, and the weight issue - set it at the current average as a constant, or peg it to every annual CDC report, or require regular reexamination - is one big sticking point. The first proposal, (before I was assigned to it, not that I would have had much input anyway; my role isn't making policy), judging by public comments, proposed big and frequent and expensive requirements for boat owners. And while safety is a concern, of course, no one has ever died from following the existing regulations or equally strong ones in other places. So maybe the average boat passenger is somehow lighter than the nationwide average person, or maybe the 1960s standards were set very, very broadly just to be on the safe side, or maybe the country has been really lucky. But in either case, our group is working and the regulated industry is worried about what we'll do, even though existing standards have done the job when they have been adequately enforced, it's just that no one can explain why.

Meanwhile, another group member mentioned in an offhand way that five people have died in the last year and a half in parasailing accidents. In one case, the rope broke and the parasailer fell 300 feet. In another case, an employee tried to slide down the line. And there are no regulations of these things. The boats in question are regulated as passenger vessels, but no government standards exist for safe use of parasails. There is some kind of an sub-industry organization that gives out a little seal of approval and stuff, but apparently they don't actually do anything about parasail safety.

But it's just one or two people at a time, so why worry?

* Although "might have been" is referring to one weekend in that general season. And the body of water is longer than it is wide, and even that weekend I would have been five miles away from the far end of that body of water. It's more likely that I was about 90 miles away by car from the accident site, but that doesn't sound nearly so coincidental...

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