When Politics Collide with Science

When politics collide with science, science usually gets most of the bruises. Such is the case in the recent flap over air traffic controllers falling asleep on the job.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood could hardly restrain himself after sleeping-controller incidents were reported in Tennessee, Washington D.C., Texas, Nevada and, most recently, Florida. Pronouncing himself “outraged” and declaring that “safety is our number one priority,” LaHood promised on April 13 – before the Miami incident – to put an extra controller on the midnight shift at 27 towers that were previously staffed by only one person overnight.

Last week, the transportation secretary pledged to “make sure that controllers are well rested,” ordering new rules to require at least nine hours between controllers’ shifts, rather than the previous eight.

LaHood says he is doing everything he can to ensure safety. The truth is that he is doing everything he wants, which is not the same thing.

One important thing LaHood can do to fight controller fatigue, but chooses not to – despite ample scientific evidence that it would make a big difference – is to change controllers’ work rules so they can take naps during their shifts. Maybe because he thinks there is an important principle involved, or maybe because his political sense is a lot more muscular than his common sense, the cabinet officer who has promised to ensure well-rested controllers thinks it is just too unseemly to let them actually get some rest.

“Paying controllers to sleep will not be part of what we do,” he vowed on national television.

That’s unfortunate. The controllers’ union correctly points out that napping is a well-established approach to fatigue management. Other countries, including Germany and Japan, already provide for controllers’ sleep breaks. Other regulators agree. Australia’s National Transport Commission goes so far as to advise trucking companies that they are responsible for ensuring that their drivers are adequately rested, and that providing scheduled nap time is a way of meeting that obligation.

LaHood’s pig-headedness may let him persuade himself that he’s being a tough boss, but it isn’t going to do anything to stop a controller from nodding off at 2 a.m. in a darkened tower. Abstinence is a questionable policy in many areas. When it comes to sleep, it’s simply ridiculous.

Of course, the transportation secretary has a boss who has his own concerns about aviation safety. It did not take long after Michelle Obama’s plane came too close for comfort to a military transport for the Federal Aviation Administration to beef up supervision for traffic control around aircraft carrying the first lady or the vice president. I don’t quarrel with the V.I.P. attention to those presumably high-value passengers, and I know it is impractical to extend the same level of consideration to lower priorities, like you and me.

But the controller nap arrangements are simple to implement and scientifically proven. Maybe, now that his own significant other has been protected, President Obama can ask his transportation chief to wake up and deal with reality for the benefit of the rest of the traveling public.

About Larry M. Elkin 534 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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