the Unexpected Octopus

Cruising a tropical reef, our dive guide signaled that someone should check out a hole in the coral, so we could see what was hiding there. It may surprise you, but I am not that goofy (besides, the guide was not sticking his face in).

         Trusting him, a young woman gave it a whirl, and screamed mightily as a small octopus shot out of the hole. Honest – you can hear screams underwater. One of the great things about diving is that, if terror makes you wet your pants, no one knows. Turns out the guide had no idea what was hiding in there, but was willing to risk her to find out.

         If he moved to the mainland, he would have great potential as bureaucrat. The public often trusts them to guide business along the straight and narrow, and they are willing to make us try all sorts of things in pursuit of safety. Sometimes those things work . . . and sometimes they do not, but they are never at risk. We should trust them because they know best.

         In 1974, regulators mandated expensive antilock brakes on commercial vehicles, and then forced us to disable them because they were actually causing accidents. Years later, technology improved, the regulation came back and arguably has worked well.

         A recent article in a trade magazine pointed out that hours-of-service (HOS) violations have dropped by 50 percent since enforcement of the ELD mandate began. Unfortunately, there has been no corresponding improvement in actual safety; in fact accidents have slightly increased. Some observers think aggressive driving to beat the arbitrary gadget may be part of that.

         Gee whiz, could it be that half of past HOS violations were safety irrelevant silliness like spelling errors, failure to sign the logbook or my personal favorite: napping in the wrong bus? Those generally are not issues with an ELD.

         All that money spent, with no discernible benefit. What the heck, it was not the regulator’s money. The meaning here is not that regulation is bad. Some is worthwhile, and some silliness, but there is no incentive on the part of bureaucrats to get it right the first time, because they have no significant skin in the game.

         A real question is whether the crushing regulatory burden imposed has actually improved commercial vehicle safety – or (pun intended) driven people into their cars, where they can be casualties that do not befoul the regulators cherished statistics.

         A couple of points here. While they feel empowered to tell us what to do, their political cousins like transit authorities are not forced to play by the same rules. Gee whiz, they are the well intentioned government, so what could go wrong?

         Ask New York subway riders or MBTA Red line riders, or NJT commuter rail riders. When we screw up we pay, when they screw up they ask for more money. If we do not give it to them, their foul-ups are our fault. In real life we are beholden only to our clientele, while they serve political constituencies, unions and bureaucracy in addition to their relatively captive customers.

         As regulators of the private sector pursue the mythical beast of safety perfection, it is worth asking if the saintly public sector does as well.

         Second, while in my view often naive, these folks are well intended. When we are offered the chance to comment on pending legislation or regulation, we need to shine as much light as possible on their potential consequences.             When Northern divers hunt lobsters, smart ones take a light. Shining that sucker into a hole before sticking your hand in so you know what to expect. It saves lots of pain. Regulators could learn from that.

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