The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round

Until they DON'T

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Welcome back.

I was 100% sure I was all caught up from our family’s surprise Disney trip and it turns out I am decidedly not, which is why this is (checks notes) two days late. I love you, I’m sorry, let’s talk about school buses and airplanes.

— Quinn

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If you are driving in America (something I do not recommend) and a big (or small) yellow school bus stops on your side of the road — or even the other side of the road — the next thing it will do is to extend its little flashing stop sign. 

This is, as they say, the first sign.

Moments later, 400 flashing red beacons light the bus up like a Clark Griswold fever dream, all to make explicitly clear that you have to stop your car, right now.

And not like, a gentle Tokyo Drift closer and closer until the sign retracts, like you do every day through right-on red.

You can’t even call it close. You have to come to a full stop, like, pretty far away. There is no room for fucking around.

Now, the bus is yellow and the official warning signs are very, very difficult to miss, but in case you do miss all of that, you may notice all of the other cars around you that are already stopped. You’re welcome.

But if you don’t stop at all, well, the first-time penalties are different in every state. Some examples:

  • Ohio: A violation is punishable by a fine up to $500 and the driver may be subjected to a driver license suspension for up to one year

  • Hawaii: Fine up to $500 and/or community service

  • Idaho: Fine of $100 to $500 and 4 points assessed against driving record

  • Illinois: Fine starting at $500 and up to 90 days in jail

  • Minnesota: Fine starting at $500 and up to 90 days in jail

  • Mississippi: First offense is a fine between $350 and $750 and/or up to one year imprisonment

  • Connecticut: Fine of $450 for a first time offense

  • Arkansas: Can result in a Class A misdemeanor, a fine of up to $1,000, and/or up to 90 days in jail

In addition to the financial and legal penalties, I have to imagine — hope? — the societal implications of RUNNING THROUGH A SCHOOL BUS STOP SIGN are far worse.

I know my own reaction would be — at least — “What the FUCK are you doing?” Instant rage. Aghast.

Combine all of these conditions and it seems we have pretty firm agreement:

In America, you cannot just drive through a school bus’s stop sign and — potentially — hurt at least one child. Nope. We will not risk one single child.

Despite years of doing this work, I still like to believe there’s some generally agreed upon lines we all won’t cross. This bushy-tailed naivety is informed (skewed?) by personal experience.

When I was very young — say, kindergarten or first grade — my own school bus meandered every morning through a leafy quiet college town neighborhood, where it would pick up an assortment of other very small children.

Well, one morning, shit went sideways. Real sideways.

The bus stopped.

The stop sign and all the lights came out (these existed as far back as 1988, or as my children refer to it, “the late 1900’s”).

I watched from the bus window as my curly-haired friend Grace left the safety of her front yard and bopped into her idyllic little street, commencing another day of math lessons brought to life with popsicle sticks.

But on this day, as I watched in horror, Grace was nearly crushed — jettisoned into absolute oblivion — when an asshole in a Ford Escort came screaming down her side of the street, fuck your stop signs.

To say the car missed her by inches would be an exaggeration.

(I was five or six so, really, who can know), but the point is this: our bus driver wrenched open her window, told (traumatized) Grace to go right back inside her house, told the rest of us to HOLD ON, and then ABSOLUTELY FUCKING FLOORED IT to chase down the Ford Escort.

I was five or six so this 2 Fast 2 Furious experience felt OFF THE CHAIN and also like PURE TERROR, as I — and thirty other elementary school friends clad in yellow raincoats and Underoos — careened around the bus, grasping for dear life to our cracked leather seats.

The whole thing ended two minutes later when our bus driver launched her bus, our bus, like a Tomahawk missile right into the perpetrator’s FRONT YARD.

She opened the door, stomped down the stairs, and laid into this CRIMINAL with a righteous fervor that would have made Honey Bunny climb right back into her booth.

It was incredible, and I think it speaks to the very obvious and universally respected rule that you do not fucking drive through a school bus stop sign!

It is easy to assume this rule and rules like it are obvious and universally respected.

Before we ruin that idea, let’s talk about another obvious example: air safety.

To set the tone: I don’t love turbulence.

I didn’t use to be quite so scared, but some delightful combination of control issues and getting old (and probably having kids I’d like to see grow up, even if they already have very little use for me) has made me significantly more fearful when a plane, you know, gets tossed around — by literally just AIR.

Here’s the thing: I also understand far (barely) more about probabilities than I used to or would like to, and so I am aware I’m significantly more likely to die from some sort of road traffic “accident” — either walking, on my bike, or in my own car — than I am in (on?) on airplane.

Living with this nuanced, informed perspective — really fully knowing what a horror show American streets are, and how relatively safe air travel is — I have decided that my remaining fear is probably wrapped up in a sort of, “Ok sure, but if this plane goes down, nobody’s just twisting an ankle. I’m bread crumbs” fatalism.

This, as opposed to, say, a fender bender. But on the other hand, that’s not really true, either. People survive plane accidents all the time — literally there were two this week. Air travel is crazy safe.

Sure, yes, doors have been consciously uncoupling from their planes recently, and other planes have been running into each other in places where they would otherwise land safely, but there’s a reason for that and it’s called human nature.

You could describe it as resting on our laurels or whatever, but vis a vis air travel and some other things, we have recently decided, “These things are so safe, we can stop being so safe with them”, kind of how Republicans stopped vaccinating their kids from measles and polio.

“Measles is one of the most contagious infectious diseases, and also one of the most preventable: two doses of vaccine in childhood is 97% protective. WHO estimates that some 61 million doses were missed or delayed in 2021.”

The argument again here is, “If this thing is so safe, why do I have to continue doing the thing that has made it so safe?”

Let’s unpack it.

Zeynep Tufekci wrote recently in The New York Times about why planes don’t usually run into each other, all things considered:

“A National Transportation Safety Board investigation report reads like a how-to book for pulling off miracles and achieving seemingly incredible levels of safety. These reports renew one’s faith in what humanity can achieve if we apply our brainpower and resources to it.

But they also remind us that, much like liberty, these exceptional levels of commercial airline safety require eternal vigilance against the usual foes: greed, negligence, failure to adapt, complacency, revolving doors at regulatory agencies and so on.”

(At this point the only things we do “eternal vigilance” about are wombs or food stamps)

Thanks to those “tradeoffs”, comparing the safety regulations for air travel versus, say, cars, supplements, or guns is really an apples and oranges scenario.

Which is why it’s frustrating and really a shame that the one sector we said “No fuckups allowed” about — the most complicated of all of them — is now sliding closer to “Ok, some fuckups”.

We once said, “Hold on just a second, Wright Brothers. If we are going to let amateur pilots like yourselves just fling these 100 ton airliners all over the sky, there should obviously be very strict rules about who can fly what, and after how much training, and where they can fly, and how many of them can takeoff, fly, and land in one place at one time, and how often and how rigorously the airplanes themselves should be inspected. Shit, we should even make rules about how tall buildings can be without flash lights on top. There is no rule small enough to make sure everyone is safe.”

Air travel is/was so good and so reliable — like how lights turn on when you hit a switch, or water flows from your tap — that it has almost become invisible. It is part of the long-accepted essence of every day life.

But as Zeynep also wrote, “Sometimes, it’s good to make visible the many invisible people who keep us safe.”

Except…instead of doing that, and in the name of good business and shareholder returns, we have decided planes (and apparently apple sauce) are “safe enough”.

If you are new here you may be wondering what my credentials are, to judge such a thing.

I am not my mother-in-law, who is an expert in risk and making peas with butter, but I am a liberal arts major who couldn’t really figure out another realistic way to use my degree besides this critically-acclaimed mile-wide and inch-deep understanding of the human condition and how it drives the macro forces and systems underpinning global economies into slowing down the jet stream.

When it comes to kids at least, and/or the fundamental human necessities like air, water, food, and shelter, I feel like an agreeable threshold for “safe enough” is somewhat like Justice Potter Stewart very clearly defining hard-core pornography as, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

Whatever your credentials, if we are arguing about minutiae when it comes to kids, air, water, food, and shelter, you are an asshole, and we have lost the plot.

Your kids have the version everyone else has, or they don’t, and vice versa. Anything else is unjust.

As Peter Singer wrote:

“The notion of a judgment carries with it the notion of a standard or a basis of comparison, against which the judging is done."

But the thing about human nature is that our increasingly complicated incentives make these basic standards increasingly harder to define, much less agree to.

Facebook’s moderation circus decided this week that two billion global users can, yes, safely continue to share a lightly edited video implying the president the United States is a child predator. Did they consider all of the possible secondary effects of this decision? Question mark?

This isn’t to say Facebook/Meta doesn’t do a simply enormous amount of content moderation. If they didn’t (and they do), the platform would have successfully facilitated way, way more genocides than simply the one in Myanmar.

Again, tradeoffs. We/they have decided that internet cannot simply/only be a safe place.

I believe we can do better, though. I believe we can agree on some truly basic shit.

Because as much as most of our systems decidedly do not much up to air travel, we have made progress in a whole variety of other areas, overcoming previous tradeoffs for the better good.

You cannot simply light up a cigarette wherever you want anymore, or really most places, because it turns out that this is not only very bad for you, it’s probably even worse for me.

The work to get to this point was endless and in another post on another day I will happily name the bad guys by name, but we finally got here and holy shit, have we made huge strides against own-goals like lung cancer since then.

There are even other examples!

Consider how surgeons have to actually wash their hands now before digging around inside your meat bag, or how food workers have to also wash their hands as they painstakingly assemble your carnitas bowl (which, for several reasons, looks exactly like the inside of your meat bag — guac, as you know, is extra).

In fact, both of those professionals also have to wear gloves, because we decided it’s actually not enough to just wash your hands! Amazing. The things we will do for safety.

Germ theory, DDT, chemo, vaccines for smallpox, tetanus, and yellow fever, etc.

It is literally the motto of Reading Rainbow: the more you know!

These are all examples of where we have used new knowledge, or updated our priors, to protect more people, because we could, and should. We didn’t use to do these things, like how we used to let people and animals poop upstream of other people’s drinking water or how we let Kodak dump a gazillion gallons of chemicals into the waters around Rochester, New York and then, voila, a generation of CNY women had trouble conceiving.

But we gained knowledge, often the hard way, and made it better, if not equitably so. The stakes were too high: if those people don’t wash their hands or wear gloves, either could infect you with whatever they’re carrying around or have recently picked up/been quietly incubating, much like your kids.

In the Chipotle version, the foodworker could infect many people, because when people are sick but still have to go to work around other people and their particular job is make food for even more people, that’s the math. And it’s actually the same math for health workers, or really any workers, even if they are not making your child a plain quesadilla, again. Fun stuff.

We don’t need to linger here — it is obvious again to both you and me that sick people should not have to come to work, if at the very least so they don’t infect their co-workers (I have just one, and she is 2500 miles away), reducing workplace productivity and, eventually, the potential for those sweet, sweet shareholder dividends.

But despite those (obvious) incentives, that’s not actually (yet) the rule here in America. And it’s not the rule because of those pesky “tradeoffs” making even the most clear incentives kind of hard to cleanly argue for or against.

But hold on, there are no tradeoffs for the school bus example, you say. We can argue for tradeoffs for almost everything, except this precious obvious thing. So you are two minutes later to wherever you are going, in exchange for a child’s life? That’s just not a realistic tradeoff in any imagination! What are we even doing here having this discussion?

And yet.

There are some people — some very few but real people — who might argue for reducing these penalties or doing away with them altogether.

Now you might scoff at or even disagree with my claim, and I would briefly provide significantly more context:

“In the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services’ 2019 Stop Arm survey, 130,963 school bus drivers reported that 95,319 vehicles passed their buses illegally on a single day.

Throughout a 180-day school year, these sample results point to more than 17 million violations among America’s driving public.“

17 million violations in a single school year.

(Let’s also remember that a very, very loose ruling of “a well-regulated militia” continues to leave many children and their beloved teachers dead every year, all because that ruling was passed two hundred and thirty three years ago, guaranteeing personal #liberty, before we knew about washing our hands or even dinosaurs)

We have decided to continue to contest the definitions of “clean water” and “clean air”, who can say when they are clean, and what things we could put into your water or air that might then go into your body or your goldendoodle’s body or, most likely, a Black person’s body, because of tradeoffs.

What’s kind of incredible when you take a step back is that we don’t hide from these conversations. They often play out in public, in newspapers (RIP), and on TV through vast disinformation campaigns, greenwashing, and movies like Erin Brokovich, Dark Waters…and I’m going to throw Spotlight in here too, because truly, fuck those people.

Even my wife’s beloved cancelled TV show, Home Before Dark, spent a whole season asking “WTF” about an airplane company dumping just whole barrels of chemicals off the west coast (a plot line obviously not inspired by real life).

Sometimes we even use these situations for laughs. We make jokes about “infrastructure week” because our pipes are made of lead, still, and our kids are dumber for it. We use terms like “boyfriend loophole”, “wife beaters”, and “roid rage” to cover for domestic violence.

One of our tradeoffs is so well known that we have affectionally renamed a particularly and intentionally dicey region of the Gulf coast, “Cancer Alley”.

We inspired a bazillion helicopter parents, but US kids (to say nothing about the world’s kids) are addicted to their phones because we refuse to regulate big tech. Meanwhile, foster care is broken, and childcare is inaccessible and unaffordable.

In the US, kids are more likely to go hungry or live in poverty than kids in other wealthy countries, because we have decided that is ok, or at the very least, been unable to come to an agreement on what is not ok.

How are we supposed to navigate this energy transition, and AI, and pandemics, if we cannot agree on the most basic, fundamental shit?

We argue about tradeoffs or gently suggest expanding the scope of our moral concern to include other people’s air, water, food, shelter, and health, instead of simply saying some things — like the lives of children — are simply, emphatically, non-negotiable.

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