What can clearing our roadways of snow teach us about airport security?

In February 2010 the amount of snow that descended upon the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Eastern Seaboard were record breaking. Parts of Ohio had snowfall levels that tripled the monthly average for February and the Washington D.C. branches of the federal government shut down for multiple days to accommodate the wintery weather. What happens after each winter storm is the same from Ohio to Maine, children make snowmen, teens go sledding and everyone complains that the snow isn’t removed from the roadways quickly enough.

Snow removal is such a large issues in the winter that infamous D.C. councilman Marion Barry said “Snow, politically, in Washington — in most places — is a very high-stake poker game“. Like most services – especially state funded ones – consumers want better service but don’t want to pay for it. In a political climate that promotes harsh dynamic messages, a politician advocating for higher snow removal taxes in September will get vilified in November and validated in February. As citizens we understand the risk associate with driving in the snow but aren’t willing to spend more money for better snow removal methods and equipment.

Flashback to Christmas Day 2009 when the Underwear Bomber arrived at Detroit Metro Airport after terrifying a plane full of passengers and setting himself on fire. Without delay television media began reporting the event and security analysts were immediately summoned to make their cases for what security measure might have prevented a situation like this. Suggestions ranged from highly advanced full body scanners costing $100,000 – 175,000 – ten times the cost of a standard metal detector – to full body pat-downs and chambers that shoot bursts of air which illuminate anything hidden under a passengers clothing. What wasn’t addressed is whether we’re at a similar point with airport security as we are with snow removal. Why are we willing to spend more on airport security to prevent terrorism than pay more to have clear roads?

Both snow removal and airport security are empirical derivatives of a cognitive psychology principle known as the availability heuristic – our judgments of an event are dependent on the accessibility of the event. The availability heuristic is the reason flood insurance applications increase after heavy flooding – regardless of geographic location – and contributes to people attending fitness classes after their New Year resolutions. More recent events and personal events garner more weight in decision making than other events – even if those other events may be statistically more relevant. Airline terrorism is more relevant than snow removal because nearly every American can picture September 11th and include that in their thoughts of new attempts like the Underwear Bomber. Snow removal changes however take time, whether it’s through budget increases in June or ballot issues in November. The time delay between the memorable event and change opportunities makes it less influential in our decision making.

Financially we could clear the snow more quickly. If it mattered to people they would sacrifice their television programming, magazine subscriptions and eat more rice and beans so that other discretionary income could go to paying taxes which fund better snow removal. In reality though we value having each of these things more than cleaner winter streets and similarly, in fighting airline terrorism at what point have we gone too far in our balance of resources? How much cost are airline passengers willing to incur for safety beyond what they have now?

Immediately following threats of terrorism and snowfall our demands for increased plows and security is loudest but only because we attend to these because they happened recently. Terrorist attacks – especially those involving planes – are noticeably strong but if we can wait and consider all the implications we’ll realize that absolute airline security is only as possible as pristine pavement.

This was originally written and posted sometime late February or early March 2010 then removed when this blog was redesigned. I’m posting it again here as I believe it’s relevant again and believe the blog theme will remain as this.

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