World transport ministers have a weak-knee approach to road safety
A fatal truck crash today in Pennsylvania has highlighted the weak-knee approach of governments, transport ministers and industry leaders to driver fatigue and its effect on road safety.
Semi driver, Steven Bernier, 50, of Reading, PA started work at 1:30 a.m. and fell asleep five hours later at 6:30 a.m. His 18 wheeler slammed into a line of cars waiting at a red traffic light, killing two people in separate vehicles and injuring nine others. Bernier has been charged with two counts of homicide and nine counts of aggravated assault, and other charges.
He will no doubt go to prison for a very long time and, for the authorities, everything will be forgotten and life will go on. But not for the victims or the truck driver. They, and their families, will have to live with this tragedy for the rest of their lives.
I like to compare road safety with flying safety because flying and driving started at about the same time, but they have a totally different stance on safety. In the early days of motoring speed and traffic volumes were low and accidents were few. On the other hand aviation started out badly and flying was about the most dangerous thing a human being could engage in.
|The accident scene and the truck driver|
A critical difference then, and now, is that flying accidents are generally less survivable than road accidents, but in spite of that aviation has achieved a safety record that should be the envy of all road users and road safety campaigners. One may ask, how did that happen? How did flying (not including private flying) become the safest mode of transport ever devised, while road safety made negligible progress?
In a word, the answer lies in attitude. In aviation, safety comes first in every consideration. This applies not just to pilots, but to everyone involved in every aspect of aviation; aircraft designers, regulators, trainers and training, weather conditions, maintenance and servicing and repair, accident investigation and reporting. ‘She’ll be right’ has no place in the air the way it does on the roads. The aviation world understood early on that safety rules were vital for the survival pilots and passengers, and for the survival of aviation itself.
Meanwhile, for over 100 years road safety has been given little more than lip service only. On two factors alone the record is appalling. Seat belts were standard in all aircraft almost 100 years ago while few cars had seat belts prior to 1970 and many larger vehicles still don’t have them including many passenger buses. In some situations the authorities still allow unrestrained, standing passengers on public transport. That is reprehensible.
The second area where road safety is seriously lacking is with accident investigation and reporting. For at least the last 60 years all fatal flying accidents have been subject to thorough investigation by specially trained experts. They then publish a public report giving full details of the aircraft including manufacture, maintenance records, hours flown and other relevant details; the pilot including licence and type ratings, total flight time, hours on type, hours in previous three months and previous incidents; details of the flight and weather conditions, circumstances of the accident and examination of the wreckage; conclusions as to probable cause(s) and recommendations for preventing similar accidents in the future.
Continued below . . . .
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Road accident investigation by comparison is still primitive, and will do little if anything to make roads safer, and seems to focus only on the possibility of prosecutions and helping insurance companies settle claims. Indeed under existing law in most countries investigations along the lines of aircraft accident investigation would be impossible because of a lack of logbooks or data recording devices.
In aviation the emphasis is on ongoing training and education. Everyone learns to fly with a qualified instructor and undergoes regular re-checking. You can’t teach a friend or family member how to fly. Meanwhile on the roads most people do learn to drive with a friend of family member who will pass on their own bad habits and lack of professionalism and there is no re-checking or ongoing training. Instead of training and education, as in aviation, on the roads it is just a case of policing, prosecuting and punishing, and it doesn't work.
|Author Peter Blakeborough|
But to return to the tragedy in Pennsylvania, drivers work inhumane hours in inhumane conditions for wages that are a pittance. And all over the world governments simply don’t care. All things considered the vast majority of professional drivers are safe drivers and that can be verified by insurance statistics which show that in truck/car collisions 70% of liability rests with car drivers and only 30% with truck drivers. Truck drivers typically spend a big part of their long day avoiding collisions with cars that are being driven inappropriately. However, there has been no suggestion of another vehicle being responsible in Bernier’s case.
But I wonder what circumstances in the preceding hours and days led this professional driver to fall asleep at the wheel. He can legally be on duty and driving for 70 hours a week while frequently having his starting and finishing times altered substantially. A person working under those conditions may not even be aware that he is fatigued. Unlike an airline pilot, he does not have a co-pilot with dual controls or a rule requiring a rest period of at least the same duration as the duty period preceding it. He is not restricted to a maximum of 100 hours in a 28 day period, nor is he limited to an annual maximum of 900 hours, like the airline pilot.
The rules of the road and attitudes to safety need to change, but it is not something that one company or employer, one country can do. The changes need to be led by the United Nations, just as the International Civil Aviation Organization (an agency of the UN) has led the way with air safety.
But the sad thing is that most people will not be even remotely interested in reading posts like this. It is just too easy to think, it won’t happen to me.