Friday, September 6, 2013

How the rail disaster was inevitable

Given the rush by the government to pin all the blame onto the train driver (to the point of arresting the guy in his hospital bed… like he was going anywhere), it’s interesting to think about how inevitable this accident was.

If you were to design a system to be as safe as possible, you think about how many bad things have to happen at the same time before you have a disaster. The chance of two bad things happening at the same time is exponentially less likely than a single bad thing happening, so the more things need to go wrong, the better off you are.

The way things were design was that a single mistake by the driver would cause a fatal crash. No backup, so second chance. Of course, the likelihood of the driver being distracted at the exact wrong moment was small, but inevitable at some point the driver was going to be distracted at exactly the wrong time, and a disaster would happen. Not only that, but then RENFE also gave the driver a mobile phone, which was inevitable going to ring at the wrong moment at some point (and there’s enough research on how serious the distraction caused by mobile phones is).

You think this could never happen to you?

Imagine the hypothetical case where a driver is looking at their mobile phone, doesn’t see a kid crossing the street and runs him over. People get outraged at the driver for not paying attention, but if you think about it carefully, what really happened wasn’t a moral failure. Almost everyone I know sometimes looks at their phone when driving, but this person got extremely unlucky and looked at their phone at exactly the wrong moment. Was this person really morally at fault than the rest of us who were lucky and got away with it?

No comments: