Safety Lessons From the Morgue
On a bright, chilly morning in February, Susan P. Baker sat in her fifth-floor office at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, staring at her computer screen. She had just completed a search for the word “sightseeing” in a federal database of U.S. aviation crashes between 2000 and 2010. Now she was scrolling through a seemingly endless list of grim case histories of people who were killed or injured when their sightseeing aircraft or balloon crashed.
A month before, she read a news story about the crash of a tour helicopter in Nevada. Five people died, including a couple celebrating their 25th anniversary. “It made me sad and angry,” she recalled. “Such senseless deaths!” So Baker, an epidemiologist, did what she’s been doing for more than four decades. She decided to find out why people were dying and what could be done to stop it.
Working with Sarah-Blythe Ballard, a doctoral candidate and Navy flight surgeon, Baker prepared an abstract and sent it to the Aerospace Medical Association. When it’s finished, the article will delineate the number of fatalities for each mode of sightseeing flight, including balloon, helicopter and fixed-wing; describe the circumstances that led to each crash, like encounters between hot-air balloons and power lines; and offer suggestions for reducing the risk of a crash — for example, increasing training for pilots on landing in unfavorable wind conditions and avoiding power lines. Then, if everything goes the way it usually does when Baker publishes her work, the article will be picked up by the media, putting pressure on the businesses that run sightseeing flights, as well as the legislative committees and agencies that oversee their operations, to improve the way these flights are conducted. Over time, the hope is, fewer people will die in these sorts of accidents.
Baker has had a hand in more than 250 such research papers, as well as her nearly 40 monographs and textbook chapters and 5 books. She has endlessly lobbied, in person and in print, for gun control and air bags, motorcycle helmets and home sprinkler systems. She has fought to put the discipline of injury prevention on the nation’s public-health agenda, leading to the creation of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and nearly a dozen injury-research centers at universities and hospitals around the country.