‘Less Demanding Than Avoiding Them on the Road’
James Fallows with some interesting comparative thoughts on air crashes, and ground crashes, vis a vis this weekend’s events:
To someone with no experience controlling cars or trucks, it would seem incredible that drivers could whiz past each other in opposite directions on a two-lane road and not have head-on collisions all the time. They’re so close to each other! How can it possibly be safe? Isn’t anyone in control? And in fact, tens of thousands of people do die in road crashes each year. But since most people know about cars, they understand how drivers can watch out for other vehicles, how two-way traffic can usually be safe, and what kind of mistake, misjudgment, recklessness, or sheer bad luck can lead to a head-on crash.
But when it comes to aviation, relatively few people have first-hand experience steering planes or watching out for other aerial traffic. And because air disasters, when they happen, are so gruesome, it’s natural for most people to think: they’re so close to each other! How can it possibly be safe? Isn’t anyone in control? In fact, avoiding collisions in the air is, in terms of sheer reflexes required, less demanding than avoiding them on the road. (Landing an airplane is more demanding than most aspects of driving; simply flying an airplane is not.) If you lose attention for five seconds in a car, you can be in serious trouble. In airplanes there’s usually a lot more time to see what’s coming toward you and decide how to avoid a problem. It’s more like operating a boat in a harbor than like driving a car on a road. This may be why Mayor Michael Bloomberg — who has trained extensively as a helicopter and airplane pilot (his certificate info here) — struck the calmest note in the NYT story. He said, essentially: this is a terrible tragedy, and while we have to look for causes, it doesn’t mean we have to go crazy or shut everything down. More or less the way car drivers respond after a road tragedy.
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