Monday, November 15, 2004

Behavioral Safety Comes To The Railroads

I wrote earlier this week about the NY Times investigative articles describing the dangerously close relationship between the railroads and those who should be overseeing their safety, as well as the railroads' disturbing practice of blaming motorists for accidents at crossings while covering up the railroads' failure to make the crossings safe.

Well, it turns out that the railroads have established a nonprofit "rail-safety" group called Operation Lifesaver. What's the purpose of Operation Lifesaver? To warn motorists to be more careful at railroad crossings.

So what's the problem with that?
Operation Lifesaver is the nation's most influential rail-safety group, preaching its gospel of driver responsibility to judges, police officers, elected officials and the news media. No one disputes the value of its message - that drivers should pay attention at rail crossings - or the dedication of many of its volunteers. And its work is widely praised by police and community groups.

But documents show that the organization is tightly bound to the railroad industry, and critics, including many accident victims, say the group's message serves another agenda: to inoculate the railroads against liability in grade-crossing collisions.

Not only did a railroad help found Operation Lifesaver; rail industry officials make up half the organization's national board and provide much of the financing for its state chapters. It also gets millions of dollars from the railroads' federal regulator, which is itself closely intertwined with the industry.

And even as Operation Lifesaver speaks out about changing drivers' behavior, it spends little time on a range of safety matters that are the responsibility of the railroads and is largely silent on the benefits of warning lights and gates, which many experts say are among the most effective of all safety devices.
This is strikingly similar to "behavioral safety" theories which argue that most workplace accidents are the result of employee carelessness (as opposed to unsafe conditions). Just encourage those workers to be more careful, give them prizes for not reporting injuries fewer reported injuries, and punish them when they get hurt.

Didn't their parents teach these railroad guys to take responsibility for their mistakes? Or maybe they were taught to make the President of the United States their model.