Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Recalls and near misses: Who's protecting us?

By Bob Greene
updated 7:31 PM EDT, Sat May 24, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: We count on notion that some vague official authority is protecting our safety
  • He says recent food recalls, GM recalls and planes' near misses remind us this isn't always so
  • He says giving others sway over our safety carries risk. Use common sense where possible

Editor's note: Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story," "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War," and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen," which has been named the One Book, One Nebraska statewide reading selection for 2014. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- "They must know what they're doing, right?"

It's a common enough phrase, often muttered by nervous people who are thinking the exact opposite -- who are expressing doubts about those who seem to be in charge, the ones who are supposed to have all the answers.

The bus to work is making a strange, loud, thumping sound, but the driver keeps motoring along. There's an unmistakable smell of smoke coming from the restaurant kitchen, but the waiters and waitresses continue taking orders as if nothing is amiss. There is lightning in the sky above the outdoor field of a sporting event and warning sirens can be heard from somewhere in town, but the officials allow the contest to play on. The packaged meat looks a little funny, but the sell-by date is current, and the supermarket has it out on prominent display.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

"They must know what they're doing, right?"

We tend to take it on faith that they -- whoever the amorphous "they" may be -- are on the case and full of expertise and wisdom, ever on the lookout for any threats to the well-being of those who are counting on them.

So when there are signs that mistakes have slipped past inspectors, past engineers, past control towers -- signs that, for all the double-checking, perhaps a little triple- or quadruple-checking may have been called for -- people pause to consider if the safeguards assumed to be constantly in place are really so fail-safe.

This Memorial Day weekend, Americans are pondering a series of recent events that have called into question the airtightness of the business world's layers of quality assurance, and the effectiveness of the in-house inspection processes that are supposed to monitor and affirm that assurance before customers can be adversely affected.

Food-product recalls around the nation have brought worries to consumers used to taking home products assuming they are safe. In Idaho and Washington, state health departments directed people not to eat raw clover sprouts produced by Evergreen Fresh Sprouts after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited seven confirmed and three likely cases of E. coli infection.

Nearly 15,000 pounds of hummus and dip products were voluntarily recalled by Lansal Inc. because of possible bacterial contamination flagged by the Texas Department of Health.

How will GM recalls shape CEO's legacy?
Hamburger nearly kills Michigan man
Notorious auto recalls

Merchants in Missouri and Illinois were returning bulk and packaged walnuts to Sherman Produce, which issued a recall as a precautionary measure against possible listeria.

And the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service announced that 1.8 million pounds of ground beef products were being recalled because of possible E. coli contamination.

In the world of automobiles, General Motors signaled to Barclays Capital analysts that it may continue with recalls into the middle of the summer. GM, so far this year, has called in almost 14 million vehicles in the U.S., in 29 separate recalls -- which constitutes more vehicles recalled than the total of what GM has sold domestically in the last five years.

The Federal Aviation Administration was looking into a near miss between two passenger jets in the skies near George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston earlier this month. This follows the FAA's investigation of two other recent near-miss incidents, one at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and the other at Tallahassee Regional Airport in Florida, where a passenger jet reportedly almost collided with a drone.

Most of the time, things go just fine. But when stories like these appear in the news in a single week, there is the impulse to wonder just what else is perhaps being missed. And to reflect upon just how many times each day we depend on precision and diligence that, without knowing exactly who is responsible for it, we presume is there.

In truth, people reluctantly understand that the idea of endless layers of perfectionist platoons of unblinking and errorless industrial inspectors, while something to be aimed for, is probably a pipe dream.

Consumers know that their own common sense, and personal scrutiny of what they buy, is their best protection. Yet there are many areas in which the customer cannot be expected to be an expert, which is why the relentlessness and rigor of professional inspectors and regulators is so essential.

The old joke is that the ultimate act of faith in one's fellow man is opening the door to take a box of pizza from the delivery guy, and then eating it.

But each time you step into a high-rise elevator and count on all the mechanisms that hold it in the air being up to standards; each time you get a prescription filled and count on the pharmacist dispensing the correct medication into the bottle; each time you watch your child climb onto a purposely scary amusement park ride and count on someone having made certain every rail at every turn is intact and tight and correctly angled; each time you blithely drive through a green-light signal at a busy intersection and count on the light for the perpendicular street being red just like it's supposed to be; each time you start to count backward from 100 as the anesthesiologist begins to administer the first drops of the dose before you drift off. ... each time, you are, of necessity, relying on the conscientiousness, thoroughness, and devotion to detail of strangers.

There's a whole lot that, without stopping too often to ruminate over it, we assure ourselves is being done correctly by people we will never meet.

Thinking too much about that, especially after a week like the one just past, could drive us nuts.

And after all, they must know that they're doing.

Right?

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT