Whenever we board an airplane or a boat, or enter a bus or a taxi, we’re presuming that the captain or driver knows what he or she is doing. We assume that they are fully trained, knowledgeable, competent, and indeed expert in their field — that they are all like C.B. Sullinger, the heroic airline pilot who coolly landed his crippled aircraft on the Hudson River a few years ago, allowing all of the passengers to be rescued.
That’s why it’s so jarring when we read disturbing stories about events like the catastrophic sinking of the South Korea ferry, which seems to have been mishandled in just about every way imaginable. When the accident occurred the boat was being steered by a third mate who had never navigated those waters, and the captain wasn’t even on the bridge. Transcripts of conversations between the boat and a boat traffic facility on shore indicate that the crew was panicky and confused about what to do with the passengers when the boat began to list, and the captain unwisely told passengers to stay inside the boat as it began to take on water, rather than come to the deck and evacuate. Worst of all, the captain was one of the first off the boat, in violation of a South Korea law that required him to stay aboard until all passengers were off the ship.
We presume that the people who have our lives in their hands are competent because it’s a necessary rationalization and mental defense mechanism. If we are taking a ferry ride in a foreign country, boarding a bus to see a ball game, or ducking into a cab at a busy airport, we can’t realistically check the qualifications and past performance of the captain or the driver — so we assume that somebody else has done it and that the person wouldn’t be in that position if they didn’t measure up. Sometimes, that assumption is unwarranted.
The next time I get into a cab, I’m going to be sure to fasten my seat belt.