Analyst: TSA methods 'will kill more Americans on highway'

The recent public ire toward the TSA’s new pat-down and body imaging screening methods is likely to cause more people to drive automobiles and forego airline travel, say two transportation economists who have studied the issue.

As the nation readies for one of the busiest traveling holidays, Steven Horwitz, a professor of economics at St. Lawrence University, told The Hill that the probable spike in road travel, caused by adverse feelings towards the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) new screening procedures, could also lead to more car-related deaths.

“Driving is much more dangerous than flying, as you are far more likely to be killed in an automobile accident mile-for-mile than you are in an airplane,” said Horwitz. “The result will be that the new TSA procedures will kill more Americans on the highway.”

Clifford Winston, a senior fellow of economic studies at the Brookings Institute, stopped short of saying that more people could die as a result of the TSA policies, but said that the airline industry will definitely see a decline in passengers if the public’s contempt for the pat-downs and advanced-imaging technology systems continues.

“They added another wrinkle to airline travel by saying they’re going to screen you more thoroughly,” said Winston. “Demand for transportation takes into account the price, but also the time, and if you add on top of that the disutility or annoyance of having to be groped, then for some people that’ll also have an effect.”

Under new TSA rules, passengers are required to go through advanced imaging technology units. But because some people believe that the technology is too invasive, TSA officials give people the option of passing through a metal detector or receiving a pat-down, which some have said makes them feel like they’re being groped.

The public outcry over these methods caused the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), to write a letter to TSA head John Pistole on Friday asking for him to “reconsider” using the methods.


Thompson also said that the TSA should have told people about the techniques and “had a conversation with the American people about the need for these changes” while making sure to conduct and publicize privacy and civil liberties evaluations.

“By not issuing these assessments, the traveling public has no assurance that these procedures have been thoroughly evaluated for constitutionality,” said Thompson in the letter, which was also signed by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), the chairwoman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on Transportation, Security, and Infrastructure Protection.

Pistole has been at the center of growing public concern about the new pat-down techniques, which he described to senators earlier this week as “clearly more invasive” than the traditional screening airline passengers have received in the past. But, he said, the invasiveness is justified by the level and types of threats to the airline industry to which he is privy.

Pistole told the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee this week that the pat-down technique was so thorough that, had it been used, it would have thwarted the suspected Christmas Day bomber, who allegedly hid an explosive device in his underwear.

The TSA was not planning to alter the newly imposed security measures for passengers, Pistole said. But on Friday the TSA revised its initial screening policies in response to objections from a growing chorus of pilots so that now they will be exempt from being scanned or patted down.

Earlier this week in protest of the screening measure, a group began organizing a “National Opt-Out Day” for next Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving and one of the heaviest sky trafficked days of the year.

The airline industry has gradually bounced back since the Sept. 11, 2001, plane attacks, when it saw its profits drastically dip for many months as passengers opted for other travel means or not to travel altogether. But the recent controversy over the screening methods could cause that uptick in profits to be short-lived, said Horwitz and Winston.

“It probably won’t be as big as the original effect of post 9/11, but it will be a chunk of airline travel,” said Winston. “And it will make it that much harder to move back to a more user-friendly environment.”

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