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Unsafe at Any Speed?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood can't be serious.

Or, at least, I hope not.

When I had the chance recently to meet him at The Denver Post, where I work, I was fully prepared to endure a healthy dose of rambling about how antiquated, inefficient, money-losing choo-choo trains will replace cars.

One also can be prepared to laugh only on the inside when a Cabinet member asserts, in all earnestness, that cycling our kids to school en masse (and this adult has yet to master the art of driving his kids to school) is the answer to our national congestion problems.

One even could deal with LaHood's hyperbolic statement that "America is one big pothole," because, as anyone who lives in America knows, this is unqualified bunk. Acting as if everything is falling apart, though, is a rhetorical imperative during stimulus season.

But when LaHood berated me for suggesting that flying in a commercial airplane is a safe mode of transportation, I knew he was perfect for a Cabinet position.

In his best Illinois tough-guy form, LaHood was in the middle of grandstanding about the need for new regulations covering airlines and pilots, who, despite those imposing uniforms, according to LaHood, display the accountability of a pro athlete. And if airlines did not hand over this personal information voluntarily, Ray LaHood would make them do it.

When I asked LaHood whether there was an outbreak of gruesome airline calamities that somehow had escaped my attention, he suggested I ask the relatives of those who died in a recent commuter jet accident about safety. Americans, he declared, are demanding more regulation. And he ended with a sarcastic quip: "I'm happy you feel safe."

Oh, I do. Why wouldn't I? There wasn't a single U.S. airline passenger death caused by an accident in 2007 and 2008, years in which commercial airliners carried 1.5 billion passengers. If you are a skateboarder, skier, pedestrian or train rider, your chances of dying are far greater.

In both 2007 and 2008, about 700 bicyclists reportedly died on U.S. roads. That doesn't count the immense cost of other cyclist-related injuries and the unseemly sight of those preposterously kaleidoscopic tights the rest of us are exposed to.

If journalists transposed LaHood's fears about flying to cycling, newspapers would be impelled to run "blood on the streets" series weekly.

We've heard the cliche a million times: You have a higher probability of dying in an accident driving to the airport than you do flying in a plane. One study claims you would have to fly once a day every day for more than 15,000 years to be involved in an accident -- about a 1 in 11 million chance.

Aircraft accidents, though, are between 150 and 200 times more likely to receive front-page coverage (according to some exceptionally unscientific data I choose to believe) than any other cause of death. I will concede that plunging 30,000 feet in a fiery mess of mangled steel holds an exceptional creepiness and is unquestionably newsworthy. Precisely because of this coverage, airlines have an overriding incentive not to be involved in an accident. The public remembers not only the airline forever but also the flight number.

No mode of travel is completely safe. And there is a clear need for an overhaul of the nation's air traffic control system. But airlines, already highly regulated, employ vigorous employment requirements for pilots and spend massively on safety.

LaHood's campaign of scaremongering shouldn't convince us that we need more scrutiny in hiring pilots, only that we need more stringent standards for Cabinet members.

(Karma now dictates that I perish in a horrendous airline crash over a swamp in Florida. I accept this but still maintain that my chances for survival remain greater in the air than on a Trek riding to work.)

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