Greyhound bus security

Having spent much of the last week waiting for or riding on Greyhound buses, all the news stories about the man who was beheaded on one caught my eye. Some people are calling for airport-style screening procedures for buses. There are at least two reasons for which this is inappropriate.

The first concerns the mobility of buses. With a plane under their control, hijackers can fly to distant states that might assist them. The only way to stop them is to shoot down the plane, killing everyone on board. Buses are comparatively easy to stop. You can shoot out the tires, put spiky strips across the road, or simply block the route with something heavy. Nobody is likely to escape to sunny Cuba on a hijacked bus. Another element of mobility is multiple stops. Bus companies would need to (a) put security at every permitted stop (b) only allow people on at big bus stations or (c) allow some unscreened people aboard buses. Someone determined to commit a violent act on a bus could take advantage of (c), while (a) and (b) would seriously inconvenience people at many smaller stops.

The second is that someone in control of an ordinary plane can kill a lot of people. They can certainly kill everyone on board. They can also kill many people on the ground. Similar risks do not exist in relation to buses. At the very most, someone with a machine gun or explosive device could kill most of the people on board. There is no clear situation where being on a bus increases the amount of harm a person can do. Someone who wants to kill a particular person can do it at least as easily off a bus as on it; the same is true for someone who just wants to kill people at random.

There is certainly a certain risk of violence on board a bus, but that does not mean that excluding weapons is a sensible use of resources. For one thing, it would increase bus fares substantially and require the redesign of bus stations. For another, it isn’t clear that it wouldn’t simply displace any violence that was to occur to a different venue. Living among humans naturally entails risks, which we can mitigate to greater or lesser degrees in various ways. Reducing risk always involves some kind of cost: sometimes in money, sometimes in freedom. The level of news coverage this incident is receiving highlights just how slight a risk this actually is. The kind of risks that make the news aren’t the sort to worry about, since they are rare by definition. It’s the stuff that is too common to constitute news that you really need to fear: things like domestic violence and heart disease, for instance. Screening bus passengers is not an intelligent use of our resources.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

24 thoughts on “Greyhound bus security”

  1. Don’t Talk to the Police” by Professor James Duane

    “This is an engaging and fascinating video presentation by Professor James Duane of the Regent University School of Law, explaining why — in a criminal matter — you should never, ever, ever talk to the police or any other government agent. It doesn’t matter if you’re guilty or innocent, if you have an alibi or not — it isn’t possible for anything you say to help you, and it’s very possible that innocuous things you say will hurt you.”

    Via Bruce Schneier

  2. Extra security certainly would make the general unpleasantness of bus-stations even more tedious.

    I have been on a Greyhound before when a bi-polar individual had an episode, egged on by some nearby passengers. He threatened to kill everyone onboard, and was strutting up and down the aisle shouting at the passengers.

    The biggest threat in a situation like that is that the individual will gain control of the bus and crash it, potentially killing everyone on board.

    The bus-driver contacted the police immediately, and they responded in about 15 minutes, relatively quickly since we were in the middle of nowhere in the interior of British Columbia.

    This is a good demonstration of how disarming people does not decrease the chances of attack, anyways.

    Dealing with the public always comes with risks. I think having training for the staff on procedures for stabilizing situations may be important to consider though.

  3. I agree with everything you’ve written. An argument well stated.

    I’m riding the bus next week and again the weekend after. This is a random act of violence… not something that should fundamentally change how we lead our lives.

  4. August 3, 2008
    It’s not about the bus
    August 03rd 2008
    Posted to D. Politics, F. The Whole Enchilada

    I made the mistake of reading several hundred comments on the Yahoo Canada News site yesterday, as people responded to the gruesome decapitation on the Greyhound bus.

  5. Would it really be so difficult to make people walk through a simple metal detector?

  6. Security checks only work at airports for three basic reasons,

    1) There is little practical alternative to flying.
    2) The majority of flights are point to point.
    3) Passenger checking is a function of the terminus not the transportation.

    Try putting passenger screaning [sic] on the plane door and making the plane do ten or twenty stoips [sic] every five minutes and watch the ensuing mayhem…”

  7. : : : “Would it really be so difficult to make people walk through a simple metal detector?”

    Yes. First, you need metal detectors everywhere. Then, you need security personnel everywhere — in case those metal detectors beep, you see. You need to filter the “I have a needle and I’m going to stab the person next to me!” beeps, from the “I have a kit with metal needles for my diabetes” beeps, from the dude who just had a quarter that fell into his back pocket in the wash. And then there will be questions and baggage checks and so on.

    And the security personnel need oversight, regulation, and standardization, because they amount to a sort of police force.

    And none of it will work, because the psychotic cannibal will just bring a police baton to beat his victims to death, or those knives that they now make with glass-nylon composites.

    So then you’ll force them to go through a metal detector *and* some ultrasound imaging device…

  8. Would it really be so difficult to make people walk through a simple metal detector?

    As well explained above, yes.

    In addition to the difficulties mentioned, there is the fact that we generally want to permit objects including metal on buses. Unless you want to ban all cameras, laptops, etc, you will need an airport style x-ray scanner as well. That is hardly something that can be easily installed on a whole fleet of buses.

  9. Dealing with the public always comes with risks. I think having training for the staff on procedures for stabilizing situations may be important to consider though.

    I agree.

    The cost would be reasonable, and the training could be applied to all sorts of situations. Solutions like metal detectors deal with specific threats (metal weapons). More generalized responses like crisis training are much more broadly applicable, making them a better use of resources.

    It’s like investing in general health crisis capacity, rather than specifically in something like anthrax vaccines.

  10. “It would be characteristic of our modern sensibility if we were to react to one bizarre death by hiring dozens of “safety” people to loiter on highway shoulders to check the bags of bus passengers. Of course, as an alternative, Greyhound could just go ahead and eliminate most rural stops. (The people who’d miss them don’t vote Liberal or NDP anyway.) But did we mention that even in the cities, riders who intend to continue their journey are constantly getting on and off the bus to have a cigarette or buy a sandwich? We can’t have that either, surely. Some wackjob might have a knife stashed behind a toilet in Foam Lake.”

  11. The members of the Westboro Baptist Church planning to protest the funeral of the man killed on a Canadian Greyhound bus must be among the stupidest people on the planet, not to mention the most insensitive. Their beliefs, in not particular order of plausibility:

    There is an all-powerful being who created the universe.
    It cares what humans do.
    It dislikes abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage, and legal divorces.
    It punishes countries that allow these things.
    Because Canada allows these things, it punished Canada.
    It did so by making one man behead another man on a Greyhound bus.

    Take that Canadian politics! You see what happens when you create and perpetuate a sane and tolerant society! God manifests his will through the violent impulses of mentally unstable individuals, punishing innocent people who have nothing to do with the policies in question!

  12. I believe the main reason why metal detectors will not be put in every bus stop is because it would be way too expensive. Some of the bus stops are really small and they would close down instead of bareing the cost, and as result Grayhound will lose alot of money

  13. It is unfortunate that fear arising from one particularly gruesome but extremely unique event which cannot be effectively prevented has caused such increased security costs and inconvenience for all passengers. Fear has won over common sense.

  14. Do we know more about what caused the attack now? Was it the inhumanity of sitting on a long distance bus which drove the attacker to madness?

  15. Murder of Tim McLean
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Li’s trial commenced on March 3, 2009, with the accused pleading not criminally responsible. This means, that he accepted that the offense occurred but he claimed that he was unable to form the necessary mental element or mens rea. According to a testifying psychiatrist, Li, diagnosed with schizophrenia in custody, performed the attack because God’s voice told him McLean was a force of evil and was about to execute him. Furthermore, Li believed McLean to be capable of coming back to life, so he proceeded to mutilate the victim’s body. An agreed statement of facts was released, revealing new details of the attack. It was also revealed that Li continues to suffer from psychosis and hallucinations, despite being put on strong anti-psychotic medication. Two days later, the presiding judge found Li not criminally responsible for the murder. Li will remain in a high security mental health facility under heavy security for at least another year before being re-assessed.

  16. Who Said anything about “Extra Security” HOW ABOUT JUST BASIC SECURITY?! And someone making sure luggage gets on the bus and not swiped?!
    I also don’t want my 70 yr old Mother being harassed by some creep!
    Because there IS NO MENTION of any security located at the Bus Depots, My younger Brother is going to escort her to the bus depot. We managed to convince a cousin to take off work early to pick her up at the other end. Then my brother will pick her up when she comes home.
    We’d rather be safe then sorry!

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