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Warning Pollution

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Transportation and municipal authorities have inundated the public with warnings, alerts, and notifications. The effort may be counterproductive; it is certainly annoying.

There was a small craft weather advisory for the Greater Washington D.C. area recently, which I know because my weather app duly notifies me of all weather alerts in the region. There was also one the day before, and the day before that, too. In fact, by my count there have been such advisories on 25 of the last 30 days.

There was also a tornado warning yesterday, which I learned via the darkening skies and a neighbor on the street rather than my weather app, low-tech alternatives that might be considered quaint if they did not concern a matter of life and death.

The people in charge of preparing us for various emergencies (either natural or man-made) made a choice at some point that there is no such thing as too many warnings. But that choice has left us overwhelmed with information that people simply can’t process and don’t need. As a result, people have learned to tune out the warnings in airports, subways, and other public spaces. Woe is us if the authorities need to utilize those resources in a real emergency to quickly inform and mobilize a populace that has learned to ignore such public directives.

It is easy to understand the calculus that led to the bombardment of information in public places: broadcasting an announcement asking people to be vigilant about unattended bags costs virtually nothing, and if it prevents just one incident, so the thinking goes, it will have been worth it. The problem is that there is no evidence that such warnings have prevented even one incident, but the constant vigilance has resulted in all kinds of other costs that are more difficult to perceive — or quantify.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Washington D.C.’s Union Station was evacuated because of an unattended bag an average of once every week. As a hub for Amtrak, commuter rail, and the Metro, Union Station sees tens of thousands of folks pass through with suitcases or briefcases daily, and with those numbers, it was only natural that on occasion someone would inadvertently leave a bag somewhere.

The people in charge of preparing us for various emergencies made a choice at some point that there is no such thing as too many warnings. But that choice has left us overwhelmed with information that people simply can’t process and don’t need.

Yet it has been a long time since Union Station has been evacuated. Is the Greater Washington area becoming less forgetful about their bags or have authorities quietly determined that shutting down a major transportation hub during rush hour on a weekly basis to check an unattended bag is no longer worth the trouble? It’s a calculus no one would dare admit to, but that others should consider.

Certain police departments have made the same calculation: recently, a friend was on his cell phone in a nearby park when a couple approached and asked him to report an unattended bag to the police. After weakly trying to escape, he relented and called 911, where the operator told him that this did not amount to an “emergency” and suggested that he take it to a nearby hotel’s lost and found.

Safety, Safety, Safety

Transportation authorities exacerbate the problem of warning pollution by including all manner of announcements in the mix, at least here in D.C. Anyone waiting even a short time for a train on the Metro will be told at least once not only that if he sees something to say something, but also to not smoke in the Metro system — perhaps an announcement left over from Metro’s origins in 1976, when smoking was more common. Riders are also told to not sit on escalators and that wet floors are slippery, and sometimes they are privy to pages for individual employees, which in the age of cell phone ubiquity seems absurd. Metro also repeatedly provides its phone number in all announcements, although there seems to be no good reason for people to use (or remember, since it is not actually posted anywhere in most Metro stations) a ten-digit phone number rather than call 911 or report any trouble to the station manager.

There is some evidence that Metro realizes it has created a din it needs to fight through, although their solution is daft: to make security warnings more palatable, the announcements are done by senior security officials, such as the head of Metro Transit Security, the head of the D.C. Police, or Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano — what passes for celebrity here in Hollywood on the Potomac.

Warnings should be given for genuine emergencies — genuine weather threats that impact everyone or genuine security emergencies.

Airports throughout the country also bombard travelers with too much information. In addition to diligently reminding people what they can and cannot bring through security, TSA takes great pains to inform airport travelers to say something if they see something. Besides reminding us not to leave our bags unattended, airports that award taxi monopolies also encourage us to take only approved cabs at the cab stands for our own safety, along with reminders not to leave our cars when we pick up or drop off passengers and various and sundry other nagging reminders that bring to mind the opening scenes of the 1980 movie "Airplane!"

Warnings should be given for genuine emergencies — genuine weather threats that impact everyone or genuine security emergencies. Deviating from this comes at a cost to all of us that goes beyond mere annoyance. At some level, the Department of Homeland Security seems to understand this: when the color-coded threat level notifications ended two years ago, it created Facebook and Twitter accounts to notify people of genuine emergencies directly. Neither has yet to issue a message. If only we could be so lucky in public places.

Ike Brannon is a writer in Washington, DC.

FURTHER READING: Brannon also writes “The Upside of Voter ID Initiatives,” and “Who Really Stands to Win in the Union Fights?” Evan Sparks considers “Should We Privatize Airports?” Jonah Goldberg writes “Rage Against the TSA Machine,” and “Travel, the TSA, and the Teutonic Terminology.” Gary Schmitt questions “How Silly Can TSA Be?” Marc Thiessen explains “Why the TSA Must Screen Children and the Elderly,” while Mark J. Perry blogs “TSA Creator: The Whole Thing Is a Fiasco. Screeners Should Be Privatized, Agency Dismantled.”

Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group

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