Sheepishly, I remembered my step-fathers admonition to measure twice and cut once. If I’d followed his rule, I wouldn’t be repeating what I’d just attempted to do, and wouldn’t have wasted the building materials that I’m sure weren’t free. As it was, another 2×4 piece of lumber didn’t break the bank, and the only real damage was to my pride. But even that could have been avoided by my following the rules and getting it right the first time.

Unfortunately, there are times when failure to follow rules, regulations, guidance, or training have consequences much more severe than having to re-cut a board to the proper dimensions. Imagine that you’re in an airplane, and someone’s backpack in the overhead bin across the aisle starts to smoke. At 10,000 meters (metres) above sea level, what kind of consequences are you thinking you might suffer from someone else’s failure to follow the guidance on how to properly pack away the extra laptop batteries they’ve brought on board? As horrible visions circulate in your imagination, it hardly seems fair that you should have to pay the price for someone else’s noncompliance, doesn’t it?

Have you ever followed a petrol (gasoline) tanker down the road? Imagine driving on a two-lane road, a safe distance behind a tanker with big, red UN1203 placards. The road is nice and straight for a long way, when unexpectedly an oncoming vehicle starts to drift just barely over the centerline. The tanker driver doesn’t want to be involved in a head-on collision and snaps the wheel away from the oncoming car. The oncoming car goes by just as the tanker starts having difficulty with the abrupt change in direction. As the petrol and driver start to head for the woods at the side of the road, the driver tries to bring it all back, and snaps the wheel back toward the road. This second abrupt correction is all the tanker can take, and as the ‘big rig’ crosses back onto the roadway it rolls over. As it rolls sideways down the road, the length of the tank completely crosses both lanes preventing you from accelerating around the accident, and as the spilling petrol ignites you reassess how safe your “safe” following distance really is. As your car screeches to a halt, you start to wonder if you’ll be far enough away from any impending BOOM, and why you should also share in the penalty for the driver’s failure to follow his training and correct from evasive maneuvers gradually, not abruptly.

Yes, I know that life isn’t fair, and I know that it’s unrealistic for me to expect life to be fair. But is it unreasonable to expect that when dangerous situations are caused, that regulators would attempt to place the burden of corrective or preventative action on those that cause such situations, and not onto those who have been already operating in a safe and compliant fashion?

Why should an attentive and compliant airline passenger suffer an additional burden because of an inattentive, non-compliant one? Absolutely, airline pilots are right to scream for something to be done about lithium battery fires on airplanes. The question is not whether something needs to be done, but rather, which something needs to be done. According to a noted, international DG expert in a position to know, there have been zero, repeat 0, fires on airplanes attributable to properly packaged, compliant lithium battery shipments. Lithium battery shippers that follow the existing regulations prevent fires, and don’t cause them. So why would any regulators, anywhere (we’re looking at you, USA), think that tougher regulations can reduce the fires from compliant shipments? How do you get below zero? I may not be a noted, international DG expert, but at least in this case, I’m thinking like a particular one of them. We need to target those who don’t now comply with the existing regulations, not those that do. Maybe non-compliance has arisen out of ignorance, in which case the cure is outreach and education and improved acceptance procedures. Or maybe the non-compliance is willful, in which case the cure is increased enforcement, tougher penalties, and improved acceptance procedures. But the answer is not to toughen things for those that know of, and comply with, the existing regulations.

Let’s not waste time proving the obvious, that changing safe, compliant behavior doesn’t increase safety, and instead, for lithium battery shipments, attempt to change the behaviors of the non-compliant. It’s important to everyone who gets on an airplane, and to everyone on the ground below one, that we get this right the first time.


Written 11/26/2011 for HCB Magazine