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Reducing risks

From space shuttles to driving cars

Back after the Challenger disaster, a blue-ribbon panel of experts was convened to try to find out why this amazing piece of complex machinery had suddenly exploded and killed its crew.

It was especially perplexing because of NASA’s claim that it made safety its top priority.

The group discovered that a strange mindset had set in amongst the agency’s scientists, adminstrators and engineers.

You see, blasting off the Earth atop a massive pile of highly combustible fuel is inherently a dangerous thing to do ... there’s really no way to make it completely safe.

What you CAN do is to try to eliminate every possible source of danger and reduce the chances of a fatal accident. But you simply can’t remove them all.

Working with this situation day after day, year after year, had deadened people’s realization that every shuttle launch was a very risky affair. But since they had been able to launch successfully time after time, the agency’s threshold for risk kept getting higher and higher.

So, when they discovered that the “o-rings” that sealed the rocket boosters were breaking down and leaking on previous launches, instead of stopping the program, they assigned a group to investigate and kept scheduling trips to orbit.

Then, that fateful day, an especially cold spell made the o-rings brittle, one failed and a white-hot lance of flame shot out of the booster into the main fuel tank.

Disaster.

But this numbing of our awareness of risk happens to us all, every day.

Take getting in the car and driving off to visit grandmom.

That’s probably the most dangerous thing you’ll do this year. As you sit there behind the wheel of your ton-and-a-half vehicle, cruising along at 70 mph, you are surrounded by drivers about whom you know nothing.

Some are undoubtedly drunk or hung over, others are busy texting or talking on their cell phones.

Others are doing their hair, brushing their teeth, arguing with their spouse, correcting their kids, worrying about being fired, or a host of other distracting subjects.

Some cars are riding on worn-out tires, or with inadequate brakes, or are spewing oil from their exhausts, coating the road with slippery stuff.

And yet, there you are, steering with one hand, talking away, perhaps sipping a cup of coffee, without a care in the world.

We’re used to the risk, so we live with it ... or die with it. Your risk of dying in an automobile accident is about 100-to-1, according to current statistics, whereas your risk of dying in an aircraft accident is about 20,000-to-1. But many people are terrified of flying, while they think nothing of eating a doughnut and drinking a hot cup of coffee while mixing with heavy traffic on the way to work.

And then there are public policy decisions, like natural gas terminals or pipelines or nuclear power plants. The risk of being killed by one of those installations is so low as to be nearly incalculable, but entire communities have been roused to uproar over the possibility of living near one ... they aren’t willing to take THAT risk.

Why? Partly because it’s unfamiliar, and partly because there are those who, for reasons of their own, make it their business to exaggerate the risks and to spend time trying to scare people.

Does it make them feel important? Do they really understand the statistics?

Hard to say, but it’s a familiar modern phenomenon ... one that makes statisticians want to tear their hair out in frustration.

Personally, I just make sure my car is in good shape ... and I ALWAYS wear a seat belt.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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