Red Tape Britain

Of all the words written about the Germanwings tragedy, the most thought-provoking piece you’re likely to read is by the cartographer Steve Coast (which came to my attention via the wonderful Browser).

In the wake of any major air disaster, someone always points out that flying is one of the safest forms of travel. Certainly, enormous efforts have been made to make it much safer than it was in the past:

“It used to be that airliners broke up in the sky because of small cracks in the window frames. So we fixed that. It used to be that aircraft crashed because of outward opening doors. So we fixed that. Aircraft used to fall out of the sky from urine corrosion, so we fixed that with encapsulated plastic lavatories. The list goes on and on. And we fixed them all.”

However, the result of these safety improvements is not only fewer disasters, but also weirder disasters. Because the most likely causes have been anticipated and dealt with, it follows that when an aircraft does crash it’s an unlikely set of circumstances that must be to blame:

“As we find more rules to fix more things we are encountering tail events. We fixed all the main reasons aircraft crash a long time ago. Sometimes a long, long time ago. So, we are left with the less and less probable events.”

The bizarre and often perplexing nature of recent air disasters is testament to this effect.

In trying to ‘learn the lessons’ of these events, our first instinct is to regulate. However, Steve Coast argues that the conventional approach can only take us so far. While we can anticipate and prevent the most probable causes of harm, adding ever more rules to cover every last eventuality could do more harm than good:

“We’ve reached the end of the useful life of that strategy and have hit severely diminishing returns. As illustration, we created rules to make sure people can’t get in to cockpits to kill the pilots and fly the plane in to buildings. That looked like a good rule. But, it’s created the downside that pilots can now lock out their colleagues and fly it in to a mountain instead.

“…We don’t know how many people have been saved without locking doors since we can’t go back in time and run the experiment again. But we do know we’ve lost 150 people with them.”

Whether in aviation, or other heavily-regulated environments. the principle is the same: use rules in response to the most common and obvious risks, but for the rare and unexpected, leave people free to respond flexibly and creatively. We also need to accept that, sometimes, the proverbial happens – and that there’s nothing we can do to prevent it.

However, I would add one vital caveat. Though it’s foolish to use conventional regulation against unconventional risks, we do need to limit our exposure. The key question in this regard is whether vulnerability to an extreme and unforeseen event is local or general.

To give an example, the death and grief inflicted by a homicidal pilot is horrific, but such a person can destroy only a single aircraft (along with anything it crashes into). If, on the other hand, all the planes over a country’s airspace were remotely flown from a single point of command, then the consequences of a maniac taking control would be general not local.

The standard response to a systemic risk of this magnitude is to go all-in on conventional regulation: to anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong and then come up with a rule to stop it from happening. But as that great philosopher of risk, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, has explained, this approach still leaves us wide open to ‘black swan’ events that are extreme and unforeseeable by their very nature.

The right response, therefore, is to stick to systems where the impact of such events remains local. Obviously, the air traffic control systems that we have at the moment leave pilots in ultimate control of individual aircraft – and this seems unlikely to change. However, in other crucial systems – not least the financial system – we’ve seen the progressive centralisation of control and and the systematisation of risk.

Despite the disaster of the credit crunch and the ensuing financial crisis, governments still imagine that additional regulation is the answer instead of a fundamental restructuring of the system itself.

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