I am fairly sure this expression is more about luring and killing flies than about capturing them.  And, unless one is a geneticist double-checking old Drosophila (fruit-fly) studies, I’m not sure why anyone wants flies anyway.  But aside from the obvious meaning, I’m pondering a second meaning for this expression.  It doesn’t say you don’t catch flies with vinegar, it only says you catch fewer flies than with honey.  Of course, I do have to acknowledge that zero is less than every natural number, so it is possible that only honey works.  But if vinegar does work sometimes, or even occasionally, or even only rarely, perhaps only in the right circumstances, then vinegar would have its uses in dealing with flies.

So what do flies have to do with DG?  Well, at a conference recently, those pesky Chinese suppliers of lithium batteries who consistently ignore DG regulations started to irk me.  Not the Chinese suppliers of lithium batteries who comply, but the scofflaws. They make it harder for everyone else to be safe and compliant too.  If they lie or deceive about the actual watt-hour rating of a lithium battery I possess, I may offer it for transport in an unsafe fashion, while believing otherwise. So, I’d like to see them swatted.

And the vinegar approach may happen.  I was delighted to find out some higher-ups at one regulatory enforcement agency are actively working toward having the repeated, willful, international DG non-compliance of certain suppliers affect their ability to export their un-safe products from China.  Yahoo!  Inter-agency cooperation may improve transport compliance.  What a concept.  Hooray!

My euphoria was short-lived however, as more and more thoughts occurred to me.  For as giddy as I got contemplating the vinegar approach, I got every bit as depressed or angry over the lack of concurrent honey approaches.  And the old adage suggests the honey approach could be more effective.

For as one regulator at the conference said, our biggest problem with lithium batteries are those undeclared shipments made out of ignorance. All our constant changing and adjusting of the lithium battery regulations does nothing to affect the biggest component of our problem.  And if you think those changes and adjustments are nearly over, as I did before networking at the conference, you are in for a big set of surprises.  So, as best I can tell, at least from asking and listening at the conference, most of our regulators are intent to keep trying to fix the lithium battery problems using the same approach that has yielded only minimal improvements over the past decade.  To wit, tweaking the regulations.

I think I know why this is done.  We try to control what we can control and for the most part we think we can’t control the ignorant offerors of undeclared.  Sure, we’ve jacked up the penalties against a few; higher fines, or the aforementioned export restrictions.  But, really, is this the best we can do?  Why don’t we try to sweet-talk the uninformed unto knowledgeable compliance?  I have a few ideas on how we could honey-coat our tongues for this sweet-talking, although I’m not claiming I originated all of them.

  • Let’s work with the air carriers to review the DG notices provided to passengers at automated airport check-in. Right now we pretend that all HazMat is forbidden, then accept without question their aerosols and their flammable toiletries, which teaches the general public that if it can be purchased at a pharmacy or department store, it can’t be DG/HazMat. Of course, with this attitude the general public offers lithium batteries undeclared.  We’ve been misleading them for years.  Instead, let’s explain what is DG/HazMat and then further, how they’re allowed some, with restrictions.
  • Let’s do the same with on-line airline ticket purchases. For one airline, before purchasing a ticket, I had to ‘check’ an on-line check box that I agreed that I understood all the applicable Haz/Mat regulations.  I pretended I didn’t and clicked the adjacent explanation link. The linked information was not entirely accurate, did not include all the applicable regulations, and wasn’t easy to read.  Why don’t we help the airlines make this information accurate and thorough while explaining it in plainer language?
  • Let’s use a little inter-agency cooperation and get those who screen airline passenger carry-ons onto our side. Each scan of a spare lithium ion battery for a lap top could get a verbal reminder or a printed note card explaining the existing regulations, e.g. protecting battery terminals, for carrying spare batteries onto airplanes.
  • Let’s bring back the old style poster that airlines would hide on the sides of manual check-in counters, update them, and put them on the FRONT of the ticket counter. For every passenger afraid to fly on an airplane that carries HazMat, let’s remind them about jet fuel.
  • When my nephew’s favorite driver won the biggest race of the year, his sponsor took out a full-page ad in a nationwide newspaper. Wouldn’t it be a wise investment of outreach/enforcement budget to do the same? What about billboards on roadsides, and posters and banners at bus stops and subways? How about public service announcements on radio?

Let’s catch some flies, first by targeting the flies and second by using the right bait.  When we dispel ignorance and greatly reduce undeclared lithium battery shipments, whether from the general public directly or from the businesses whose employees are members of the general public, we’ll all be safer.