License to learn: Free to choose

So how many is too many?

September 1, 2012

Rod Machado

The NTSB recently held a hearing on what could be done about—as one person described it—general aviation’s “abysmal accident rate.” Abysmal? Really?

It’s true that the GA accident rate is far worse than that of the airlines. That’s primarily because the rules governing GA (Part 91) are light-years less restrictive and far more liberal than Part 121 (commercial regulations).

When you read the dry, parched text of Part 121, it’s obvious that a party planner wasn’t involved in its construction. These rules read like Torquemada’s playbook in that they’re designed to minimize bad behavior by restricting a pilot’s freedom to make bad choices. On the other hand, where you have liberty you can choose to behave properly or improperly.

For instance, if you had been foolish enough to make a pre-democracy jump over the Berlin Wall before it fell, you’d have found relatively little crime in East Germany. Why? Because the Stasi (the secret police) controlled everything. Those with criminal tendencies simply didn’t have as much freedom to make bad choices.

During the NTSB hearing, one participant asked, “How safe do we want to be in general aviation?” While the question is a noble one, I believe the more important question to ask is, “How much of our privileged liberty are we willing to sacrifice in GA in hopes of preventing a relatively small number of pilots from bending their airplanes?”

Forty-three years of accident data might help us answer that question. From 1970 on, the total GA accident rate decreased to one-third of its previous value while the fatal accident rate decreased by more than 50 percent from its previous value. The majority of the fatal and nonfatal accident reductions occurred between 1970 and 1996. I believe two FAA programs begun in the late 1960s—the Accident Prevention Program and the Flight Instructor Revalidation Clinics—were primarily responsible for this dramatic decrease in accidents. Yes, the biennial flight review began in 1974, but according to an Aviation Safety analysis in 1984, there was no evidence that this program had a statistically significant effect on aviation safety.

During the past 25 years, however, the fatal accident rate has hardly declined, despite the continuation of free and voluntary aviation safety programs. The question that’s not being asked is whether our present GA accident rate has reached the statistical level of noise and can no longer be easily influenced without adding further restrictions on the liberties of GA pilots.

Now, before you go all kung fu on me for implying that we accept our present accident rate, consider this: The Air Safety Institute suggests that two-thirds of those who crash airplanes never participated in one of ASI’s free safety courses. ASI calls these individuals “the unreachables,” with 50 percent of the fatal accidents resulting from a blatant disregard for the rules. Many of these pilots refuse to abide by reasonable safety practices. They play a big part in our stubbornly resistant fatal accident rate. The FAA can regulate this bad-boy behavior, but at what cost to our liberty to fly?

Many FAA regulations were written to balance liberty and risk. For instance, adults are free to hold a child (under the age of 2) in flight because it presents less risk to the child than had the same pair (who were unable to afford an additional airline seat) traveled by car. Similarly, we allow a 14-year-old the freedom of soloing a balloon or glider since the communal nature and adult involvement of this activity reduces the overall risk.

It’s not unreasonable to suggest that there is very little we can do to dramatically and quickly diminish our present accident rate without disproportionally restricting the liberty offered by Part 91. That doesn’t, however, mean we shouldn’t continue trying to reduce accident rates, fatal and otherwise. NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman was correct when she said, “We know the general aviation community can and must do better.” I accept the chairman’s plea for its humanitarian intent, but we should remain suspicious of any regulatory, liberty-diminishing impulse it might inspire.

Years ago, the newspaper USA Today ran a column titled, “Government Says Too Many People Are Falling Into the Grand Canyon.” So, how many is too many? Six? Will 10 be the limit for gorges and fissures? Clearly, no reasonable person accepts any loss of life. What we do accept is the fact that when pilots have some liberty to choose how they want to behave, a few will always find new and novel ways to hurt themselves.

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