Teaching fear

John Baxter is senior associate editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. E-mail
[email protected].

Dr. Leonard Evans has an interesting take on the Titanic disaster, and it’s a view that should interest the safety director at every trucking company in the country. Evans, author of Traffic Safety and the Driver and president of a research firm called Science Serving Society in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., attributes the disaster to an unchecked faith in technology coupled, perhaps, with a bit of innate recklessness in men as opposed to women. As more safety technologies come online, the implications for trucking, which is 95 percent male, are cause for concern.

Evans has long been fascinated by the relationship between gender and accident-proneness. Even during the first year of life, males are nearly twice as likely to die in an accident as females. And boys clearly appear more reckless than girls. During one period Evans studied, there were 47 eight-year-old male children killed while attempting to operate a motor vehicle, but only four such females. At puberty, the male statistics explode; males are 3.5 times as likely to die.

Gender is but one consideration, of course. Another is an unwarranted faith that technology will counteract bad decisions. The classic example, Evans says, is Captain E.J. Smith of the White Star Line, operator of the Titanic. Smith was 62 years old and very experienced when he commanded the Titanic on its maiden voyage. But Smith and his fellow White Star officials were all blinded by the belief that the Titanic, with her watertight compartments and immense size, was virtually unsinkable.

How do we know Smith was so cavalier about the Titanic? Several years earlier in 1907, Smith had said, “I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder… Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.” He added, “When anyone asks me how I can best describe my experiences of nearly 40 years at sea, I merely say ‘uneventful.’ I have never been in any sort of accident worth speaking about.” In reality, Smith was in denial. He’d caused several serious accidents during his career.

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Evans asks the question, “Confronted by an ice field, would a less safe vessel have waited?” There are reports that J. Bruce Ismay, an official of the company that owned the White Star Line, may have intimidated Smith into proceeding at the near-maximum speed of 75 revolutions and 21.5 knots when Smith himself would have proceeded more slowly. Ismay wanted the ship to establish a record for crossing the Atlantic – ice or no ice.

The ship’s junior officers had never been drilled in evading objects at sea. If they had merely steered left upon seeing the iceberg and not reversed the engines, they could have easily steered around it. Turbulence generated by the reversed propellers made the Titanic’s rudder much less effective than it should have been and greatly slowed her turn.

What lesson does Evans draw from the Titanic disaster? “A superior operator uses superior judgment to keep out of situations requiring his superior skills,” he says. Evans sees similar, more recent examples of operators failing to heed this advice. Indeed, it’s Evans’ opinion that most of the rollover accidents a few years ago that were blamed on tire-tread separation could have been avoided. He believes poor judgment turned tread separations into rollovers.

The message is clear. Safety directors should impress upon drivers – and even their own management teams – the reality. There is death and destruction waiting to happen, but too many drivers act as if it never could. Safety devices are great tools, but they can reinforce unwise impulses. Drivers must learn to drive – and managers must make decisions – assuming the worst. Moving an entire organization out of a natural state of complacency is perhaps a safety director’s greatest challenge.