Even safety devices can put you at risk Radar, air bags jTC among high-tech dangers

February 16, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The Air National Guard F-16 flying near Atlantic City, N.J., thought it was swooping in unobserved on a Nations Air Boeing 727 on Feb. 5. Instead, it set off computerized anti-collision alarms in the passenger jet's cockpit, and the civilian pilot's emergency maneuvers -- a steep dive, then a climb -- threw three people to the floor of the passenger cabin.

The alarms were meant to increase safety, to prevent midair collisions, but instead they created risk. The F-16, for that matter, was also built to keep Americans safe from risk, but from foreign threats, not domestic airliners.

Technology, on a good day, is used to make products safer -- irons that turn themselves off, automobile brakes that prevent skids and car phones that make it easier to call for help.

Car phones may be useful after accidents, but, as statistics released last week show, they might actually be the cause of some accidents.

When safety technology presents its own threat, it's the cloud around the silver lining: sometimes adding safety features doesn't really make things safer.

Precision navigation poses another problem. In the middle of the ocean, there is no radar coverage. When jets are flying over those radar-less areas, each is assigned to a different block of space.

For years, air traffic controllers say, if two planes were assigned to the same block by mistake it probably wouldn't matter. Navigation instruments were so imprecise that it was unlikely they would really be near each other.

Now, with the precision of the global positioning system (GPS) -- a halo of satellites launched by the Pentagon and widely used by civilians -- each plane is precisely at the center of its assigned track, and two planes might follow instructions closely enough to collide.

The hazards of the new precision are not limited to aviation. In New York Harbor, ships are also equipped with instruments that navigate by GPS. But the ships cannot rely completely on this system because it does not match existing charts' renditions of where channels and bulkheads are.

A pilot who uses a precise computer-generated map to navigate but who also looks out the window for landmarks will discover that if he really knows where he is, then the Statue of Liberty, obstructions and channels are in the wrong place by several yards.

A little knowledge coupled with precise technology can sometimes be a problem. For example, automobile air bags have crouched patiently for years in dashboards and steering wheel hubs, waiting to leap out at up to 200 miles per hour to intercept a human face racing toward an unyielding automobile part.

For years those air bags made everyone feel safer, until a few air bags hit children hard enough to kill them. Now everyone feels unsafe again.

"People are particularly outraged when things designed to make them safe make them at risk," said Peter M. Sandman, a risk consultant based in Newton, Mass.

In the case of the F-16 incident, both the anti-collision system on the civilian jet and the fighter plane itself were supposed to keep people safe.

Aviation is an area in which everyone's risk perception is what Sandman gently referred to as "non-statistical." When passengers feel they are not in control they become extremely risk-averse, he said. And the public has a low tolerance for any such risk.

This comes at a time when the Air Force is facing its own problems. One is that the Air Force is struggling with the rest of the Pentagon for its image and its slice of the national budget in these years of peace. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, an aviation buff and a member of the Intelligence Committee, quickly asked the Pentagon to justify the Air National Guard's training activities.

The ultimate safety features on planes, though, are the people who fly them. One cause of apprehension is the image of Air National Guard pilots as reckless weekend warriors with "top gun" fantasies, the opposite of stable airline pilots.

In fact, the F-16 pilot that got too close to the 727 was not a weekend warrior but a full-time instructor. In that he differed from most Guard pilots; they are airline pilots, moonlighting.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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