Tales Of The Barn Door Fallacy: This Time The Door Was Wide Open, Yet Nobody Noticed

The Barn Door Fallacy occurs when a long-standing dangerous or risky phenomenon finally results in a well-publicized fallacy, and then, and only then, do legislatures and regulators rush to eliminate the problem that should have been apparent from the start. Often the new laws and regulations that “close the barn door” are excessively rigid or restictive : that door has to be slammed shut, and then nailed and bolted, even though that once in a lifetime tragedy has already occurred. From Ethics Alarms:

Society…and the public saddle themselves with expensive, inconvenient, often inefficient measures designed to respond to the rare event. One shoe bomber, and millions of passengers have to remove their shoes to go through airport security. One adulterated bottle of Tylenol, and every over-the-counter drug bottle requires a razor blade and the manual dexterity of a piano virtuoso to open. Two sick boys shoot up Columbine, so third graders get suspended for bringing squirt–guns to school.

Sometimes, regulators and legislators grandstand as they slam the door, hoping nobody will remember that they left it wide open and gaping for an unconscionable length of time.

Last year, newspapers carried this grisly story from Schoharie, New York, just west of Albany,:

The 17 friends had all piled into a white stretch limousine for what was supposed to have been a birthday celebration at an upstate New York brewery. But they never reached their destination. The massive vehicle, speeding downhill on Saturday, approached the intersection of two highways that residents had long warned was notoriously dangerous.

And in just a few seconds of terror, their worst fears were realized: The limousine lost control, careening through the intersection and striking an empty car. The crash killed all 18 occupants of the limousine, including the driver, as well as two pedestrians, in an accident that left deep tire tracks in the ground and the small town about 40 miles west of Albany reeling. Four sisters, two brothers and at least three young couples were among the dead.

Many years ago, my wife and I were attending an out-of-town wedding. The host loaded the rehearsal dinner guests into a huge stretch limo, which speeded its way down an expressway to reach the destination. I was scared to death the whole way. There were no seat belts or restraints anywhere; any collision would send bodies flying all over the interior like ping-pong balls in a wind-tunnel. In addition, the limo itself looked unstable and difficult to drive, and accident ready to happen.

When we got home, I was moved to check out of curiosity. Incredibly, there was no requirement that such vehicles have seat belts. There still isn’t.

A year after the New York accident, investigators are still unraveling the causes of the carnage. The limousine company operator, Nauman Hussain, facing prosecution for manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide had brought the vehicle in for brake service in the months before the crash, but the repair shop billed him without doing the work. Meanwhile, Senator Chuck Schumer, quick like a bunny, said he will introduce a bill to require seat belts, stricter requirements for seats and other safety features like side air bags that are not currently required for limos. “We have regulations for cars, we have regulations for trucks, but not for limos,” Schumer said. Then the the National Transportation Safety Board which is continuing to investigate the cause of the accident, issued recommendations that would require “lap/shoulder belts for each passenger seating position on all new vehicles modified to be used as limousines.”

Was everyone waiting for 20 people to die in one of these death traps to start paying attention to safety? Apparently so.

Well, one thing is for sure: THAT stretch limo will never kill those 20 people again!

10 thoughts on “Tales Of The Barn Door Fallacy: This Time The Door Was Wide Open, Yet Nobody Noticed

  1. “Often the new laws and regulations that “close the barn door” are excessively rigid or restrictive”.
    I agree, however, here is another viewpoint on that.

    We had an accident with railway track plant. It occurred just before Christmas, well out in the outback. Two men were underneath a tamping machine, which packs fresh ballast down between sleepers, when the machine was moved. The results are too grisly to be imagined, and to top it off the family of the men, along with all the other families, had been brought to the Christmas party nearby waiting for them to finish shift.

    To cause this accident, a Chernobyl like number of operating rules had been broken.

    As a result of the investigation a number of ‘excessively rigid and restrictive’ rules and procedures were introduced. So much so that it was almost impossible to do any productive work.

    So much for the long preamble!

    I was speaking to a mate who is a Mechanical Engineer and inventor, specialising in track plant, about this and, of course, grumbling about the stupidities of bureaucracy.

    His answer was: “No, this was exactly the right thing to do. They had to break a culture of ignoring safety rules, and the only way to do that was to make it impossible to do any practical work and then jump from a great height on anyone who tried to do some work and broke a rule in the process. Once the culture that caused the accident was broken, they could start changing or removing rules and get work happening, but with a renewed focus on safe operation.”

    I doubt the government ever does the second stage of that process, and this process may never work with something like the Limo situation above, but I can see his point.

    By the way, when I asked my mate if the process he described was the logic used in that case, his reply was: “No, they just overreacted and then found out what a dog’s breakfast they’d had made of it!”

    • Why? The point, which I think is clear, is the absurdity of waiting for a tragedy to address the way to stop it. The outrage is triggered by an event that is in the books, but posturing lawmakers and regulators behave as if their nostrums will bring back the dead. It won’t. That’s all I was saying.

  2. Not sure of seatbelt efficacy in a sideways seated position, but, ok.

    The real punch here is that there’s a record of the limo owner taking the vehicle to a repair shop for brake service, being charged and having paid for the service, the service was not completed….and he’s the one being sued not the repair shop?

      • School busses do not require seat belts. This is a result of how they operate (up to three kids in a bench seat) and the economics of public schools providing transportation. Having someone ride the bus to make sure the kids stay buckled up (and to release those too small to undo the buckles) is expensive, and lap belts (the only way to make it work on current busses) are ineffective in any case.

        Busses exist with single seats and three point (standard automotive) seatbelts. They are too expensive per passenger to be used by school districts, and too easily vandalized.

        Schools cannot afford better options, so seatbelts are not equipped on most school busses (and are ignored on those who have them.)

        Ethics question: should we remove public school busses from the roads?

  3. The Barn Door Fallacy occurs when a long-standing dangerous or risky phenomenon finally results in a well-publicized fallacy, and then, and only then, do legislatures and regulators rush to eliminate the problem that should have been apparent from the start.

    Have you heard of the death of James Dean?

    In 1955, he was traveling westbound of Highway 466 towards Paso Robles. At a junction with Highway 41, he struck a car that had been turning left to stay on Highway 41.

    At the time of the crash, there was only one stop sign on sotuhbound 41 before it merged with 466.

    what has been done to improve this intersection?

    A full interchange with high-speed ramps?

    Traffic signals?

    A roundabout?

    Maybe stop signs on all approaches (so that all vehicles approaching this junction would stop.)

    Here is what we have, sixty-three years later.

    http://goo.gl/maps/EAPq8DaLRR7Z3Uzf6

    Just a yellow flashing light, not even a traffic signal (although the hardware is already there.)

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