Human Error, Part I

A driver made a mistake.

That simple statement could save a great many investigators a great many hours of investigation relating to the recent Metro-North tragedy in Valhalla, New York.

A driver made a mistake.

You can put in signals, and signs, and gates, and flashing lights—still, occasionally a driver will make a mistake.

You can even blame the third rail which does seem grievously dangerous, but something that works well almost all the time may not have been the problem. What was the problem is the driver made a mistake.

That doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and say we can’t address the issue of human error. We can. We do. Those rumble strips on the sides of highways—who knows how many mistakes those have prevented over the years—how many weary drivers were jolted from an approaching nap by that annoying vibration.

We can’t operate the microwave with the door open just to feel the tingle.

We can’t open the elevator door between floors just to have a look.

We can’t open a window on an airplane because it feels stuffy.

We’re protected from our own idiocy all the time. Why shouldn’t we be protected from simple confusion?

This morning while I was on the treadmill I watched a TV show on my iPad. I don’t know how that works, but somehow the magical rays in the air allowed that to happen. How much easier would it be to put a little sensor in each railroad crossing gate that, as soon as that gate encounters an obstruction of any kind, signals the approaching train and automatically applies the emergency brake? How embarrassingly easy would it be to have a camera feed directly to a central location: CAR ON TRACK. EMERGENCY STOP. That took me about five seconds to type (the caps lock key slowed me down). That would have left another twenty-five seconds for the train to come to a stop had such a device been installed. Even more actually, because it would have been slowing down all that time.

We’re going to continue to make mistakes, and yes, that third rail doesn’t seem like the cleverest idea anyone’s ever thought of. And I don’t think we can ever eliminate human error and never obviate every impending disaster.

But we can probably do better.

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