HORWITZ: The TSA body count

Pushing Americans to drive instead of fly is killing us

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In these weeks leading up to the busy holiday flying season, there is rising popular outrage over the new body-scanning technology that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is installing at an increasing number of airports across the country. Aside from the clear invasion of privacy created by scanners that see through clothing and produce images of the flier’s body in all of its anatomical detail, fliers are even more upset by the alternative if they exercise their right to opt out of the scan: the “enhanced” pat-down that includes contact with breasts and genitalia.

Important privacy concerns aside, these new scanners and the enhanced pat-down alternative are costing more American lives than they save by causing fliers to drive instead. Driving is much more dangerous than flying, and the result will be that the new TSA procedures will kill more Americans on the highway.

In addition, there’s no good evidence that the full-body scanners are effective at preventing terrorist attacks. Rafi Sela, an Israeli security expert, told Canadian legislators this week that the machines are “expensive and useless,” which is why the Israelis, known as among the best at airport security, do not use them.

It’s time to get the scanners and the “enhanced” pat-downs out of U.S. airports and get serious about behavioral profiling and other techniques used so effectively by the Israelis and others.

The viral spread of several videos depicting fliers’ interactions with the TSA, including pat-downs of children, along with the objections of several pilots unions to the scanners, has led to a groundswell of anti-flying websites and pages on social networks, including calls to boycott the airlines so they will put pressure on the TSA to alter the policies.

From an economic perspective, it’s certainly possible that the boycotts will have some success, as might waves of letters and e-mails to the airlines, if the bottom line gets affected. But the more important economic dimension to this backlash is the choice to substitute driving for flying.

To the degree that the new TSA procedures raise the psychic cost of flying, either by increasing the wait time at security and/or by making people very uncomfortable with see-through scanning or being fondled by a TSA agent, it will induce them to look for alternative methods of travel. For most people, that will be driving rather than flying. And the reality is that you are far more likely mile for mile to be killed in an automobile accident than in an airplane. The most dangerous part of air travel is driving to the airport. And if you consider not all of the risks of flying but only the risk of what the TSA procedures are supposed to prevent, namely the extraordinarily small chance of being killed in a terrorist attack on an airplane, it is even more likely that you will die in your car than on the plane.

In a recent study done at the Naval Postgraduate School, Mary Elaine Kessler and Brett R. Seeley estimated that as many as 275 more Americans each year could be killed in automobile fatalities as a result of substituting driving for flying. That study, however, was completed in spring and does not take into account the new enhanced pat-down procedures or the degree of backlash we are seeing.

What is clear from that backlash is that the new enhanced pat-downs have significantly raised the aggravation of flying for many people well above that estimated by Ms. Kessler and Mr. Seeley. The result will be more people opting to drive rather than fly and a higher death toll on the highways.

The TSA was created to protect Americans from terrorists on planes and thereby save lives. However, by continuing to use technologies and other techniques that have no proven effectiveness and that through their invasions of privacy induce us to use more dangerous forms of travel, they are killing more Americans than they are saving. It’s time to dump the scanners, stop the groping, get serious about airport security, protect our privacy and actually save some lives in the process.

Steven Horwitz is a scholar at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center and professor of economics at St. Lawrence University.

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