NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Warning Pollution

July 3, 2013

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, says Ike Brannon in The American.

  • 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.

Transportation authorities exacerbate the problem of warning pollution by including all manner of announcements in the mix.

  • In Washington, D.C., for example, 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.
  • Riders are also told to not sit on escalators and that wet floors are slippery.
  • 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.
  • 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, the Transportation Security Administration takes great pains to inform airport travelers to say something if they see something.

Warnings should be given for genuine 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.

Source: Ike Brannon, "Warning Pollution," The American, June 26, 2013.


Browse more articles on Government Issues