Regulating is like shooting a sparrow with a 12 gauge

This column has, on numerous occasions, been a sort of confessional. But this may be the worst thing I’ve ever done.

Dave Millhouser

Three of us were deer hunting in rural Georgia, and I had my trusty single-shot Sears 12 gauge loaded with humongous “double aught” buckshot.

we’d discovered the deer version of a black hole because there hadn’t been a single sign of one.

At this point, it might be honest to mention that I am not a particularly good shot. Some folks go target shooting. I make the world safe for targets.

After a long fruitless day, we straggled back towards home and, as luck would have it, a sparrow flew by. For some silly reason it seemed like a good idea to shoot at something, so I aimed at the fast-moving little bird and, boom!

Poof. Like a cartoon, a single feather floated down. That’s all that was left.

In a million years I could never duplicate that shot. I was consumed with guilt (still am), and have never again fired at a living thing.

In an effort to salvage something from this bad behavior, I decided to make it a metaphor for our regulatory environment.

Frustrated by not hitting their politically correct target of making our industry 100 percent safe, bureaucrats take aim at a tiny fast-moving group of miscreants and blast away with the regulatory equivalent of a 12 gauge.

Occasionally they hit their mark, but often they either miss or create collateral damage.

It’s hard to argue with improving safety, but it’s worth asking if this shotgun approach has really accomplished much.

Our industry is both shrinking and consolidating. Regulators have managed to stomp a few bad actors (who often pop up again like a whack-a-mole), but their biggest accomplishment seems to be reducing the number of bus operators and shrinking the total size of the national fleet.

The number of miscreants driven from the business pales in comparison to how many small companies simply give up because the added cost of compliance makes life too difficult.

That does a couple of things, one of which is to force more people into cars, where they can be squished without affecting the regulators’ precious bus-safety statistics. While they’re at it, they burn more fuel and pump nasty fumes into the atmosphere.

If you look closely at many of the regulations, their real purpose is to make enforcement easier for bureaucrats. They generate lots of highly visible statistics, some even relevant, but create an environment so complex that even the most conscientious companies can’t comply.

Has anyone passed an audit with no violations? The fact that virtually not a single operator is without sin tells us one of two things: either we are horrible people or what they’re measuring doesn’t mean much.

Since we are the safest form of transportation in the country, number two makes most sense, particularly in light of the fact that the recent regulatory tsunami doesn’t seem to have improved safety significantly.

A certain measure of regulation is necessary, but the goal should be a few rules that actually make a demonstrable difference rather than a complex maze that can’t be navigated by well-intended people.

One of the founding principles of our nation is that you’re innocent until proven guilty (unless you’re regulated).

The percentage of accidents where mechanical failure is a major factor is minuscule, but following every visible incident, what do they do? Inspect more buses and do more audits in a quest for paperwork perfection.

We can all agree that abuse of hours-of-service rules is dangerous, but imposing fines for things like resting in the “wrong” bus at a destination or a spelling mistake is pointless.

If you really want to improve safety, patrol the roads and have police stop buses that speed, tailgate or drive erratically. That might prevent accidents, you know, BEFORE they happen.

Gee that is hard. You have to deal with such things  as irritated passengers.

The Bill of Rights was written to make enforcement difficult, not easy, and best guess is that our founders would be stunned at the powers currently wielded by unelected officials.

They’d probably go nuts if they knew how few of those officials had real-world experience in the industries they control. Would anyone who had even a rudimentary understanding of the motorcoach industry have promulgated the leasing rule that we seem to finally be beating back?

Big companies tolerate this and other rules because they eliminate competition from small (often minority and family owned) operators who can’t afford to either fight or follow the rules.

In the intervening years, I’ve rescued several birds in an effort to atone. My hope is that this column will give meaning to the life of the sparrow whose life I cut tragically short.

Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at

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