Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

Automation Designed To Keep People Safe Can Produce The Opposite Result Through No Fault Of Its Own

Monday, September 18th, 2017

A fascinating article in today’s Daily Alert from the Harvard Business Review describes how our dependence on automation can erode cognitive ability to respond to emergencies.

In “The Tragic Crash of Flight AF447 Shows the Unlikely but Catastrophic Consequences of Automation,” authors Nick Oliver, Thomas Calvard and Kristina Potocnik, professors and researchers at the University of Edinburgh Business School, report on their analysis of the horrific crash of Air France flight 447 in 2009. Their research, recently published in Organizational Science, describes in riveting detail the series of preventable cascading events that led to the deaths of all 228 passengers and crew.

Although the crash of AF447 is a transportation tragedy, it also can serve as a stark reminder that employees who depend on technology, especially technology that controls dangerous work, say self-driving 18-wheel trucks, for example, need a lot of training to take the right steps when technology reacts to emergencies. Without that training, the authors contend, the cognitive ability to take manual control and successfully deal with the emergency is problematic at best.

The authors provide an example:

Imagine having to do some moderately complex arithmetic. Most of us could do this in our heads if we had to, but because we typically rely on technology like calculators and spreadsheets to do this, it might take us a while to call up the relevant mental processes and do it on our own. What if you were asked, without warning, to do this under stressful and time-critical conditions? The risk of error would be considerable.

This was the challenge that the crew of AF447 faced. But they also had to deal with certain “automation surprises,” such as technology behaving in ways that they did not understand or expect.

The point here is the technology offering up the “automation surprises” was doing exactly what it was programmed to do. The technology did not fail; the pilots, all three of them, failed in their response to the “surprises.”

We are now at the beginning of a monumental shift in the way work (and play) is done. The natural gravitational movement of artificial intelligence assuming more and more control in our daily lives is unstoppable. Think of how it has brought tremendous improvements in air safety. To prove that, consider this astounding statistic: In 2016 the accident rate for major jets was just one major accident for every 2.56 million flights. But this bubble of safety can breed terrible complacency. How humanity deals with and prepares for the rude “automation surprises” that will surely come along on the way to the future should be a critical component in the thinking of organizational leaders and safety professionals.

 

The Bike Helmet Battle: Some Things never Change

Monday, August 29th, 2016

It’s been ten years since the Insider wrote a word about motorcycle and bicycle helmets. Shame on us. This Post provides a ten-year update and connects helmet use to workers’ compensation.

To review the bidding:

We “tackled” motorcycle helmets after Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers (who, at the time, were reigning Super Bowl champions), had been seriously injured when, sans helmet, he drove head on into the side of a Chrysler New Yorker making a left turn in front of him in downtown Pittsburgh. Big Ben suffered serious facial and head injuries. He could easily have been killed. We ended that Post with this:

As a diehard New England Patriot fan, I really want to see Ben Roethlisberger on the field challenging my team for all he’s worth. So, I hope he makes a miraculously speedy recovery and is his old self by the start of training camp. But what would be really great, better than any football game, is if Big Ben, as soon as he’s sitting up and able to mouth coherent speech, were to make a big-time television public service announcement. A TV spot in which he would tell every kid and every football fan in America that he was wrong, that he was stupid, that he is not immortal and that he will never, ever again ride a motorcycle without wearing the best helmet made in the universe.

That didn’t happen. Quite the opposite, actually. For when media asked Mr. Super Bowl Superman if he would continue riding his bike (well, make that his new bike) and, if so, would he wear a helmet, he said “Yes” to the first and “No” to the second. It was at that moment that I knew we had lost the motorcycle helmet game in America.

With respect to bicycle helmets we reported on a New York City study (unfortunately no longer available) analyzing the 225 bicycle accident deaths that occurred over the most recent ten year period in the City. The study provided compelling evidence of life-saving properties of bicycle helmets. This from that Post:

  • Almost three-quarters of fatal crashes (74%) involved a head injury.
  • Nearly all bicyclists who died (97%) were not wearing a helmet.
  • Helmet use among those bicyclists with serious injuries was low (13%), but it was even lower among bicyclists killed (3%).
  • Only one fatal crash with a motor vehicle occurred when a bicyclist was in a marked bike lane.
  • Nearly all bicyclist deaths (92%) occurred as a result of crashes with motor vehicles.
  • Large vehicles (trucks, buses) were involved in almost one-third (32%) of fatal crashes, but they make up approximately 15% of vehicles on NYC roadways.
  • Most fatal crashes (89%) occurred at or near intersections.
  • Nearly all (94%) fatalities involved human error.
  • Most bicyclists who died were males (91%), and men aged 45–54 had the highest death rate (8.1 per million) of any age group.

So, where are we now?

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety:

Currently, 19 states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear a helmet, known as universal helmet laws (Insider Note: in 2006, it was 20 states and the District of Columbia). Laws requiring only some motorcyclists to wear a helmet are in place in 28 states. There is no motorcycle helmet use law in three states (Illinois, Iowa and New Hampshire).

Regarding bicycles helmets, no state requires an adult to wear one, although 21 states and the District of Columbia require young riders to wear them.

Now, into this cranial hodgepodge of helmet laws ride researchers from the University of Arizona. Writing in the American Journal of Surgery, they report on their study, the largest ever done regarding the efficacy of bicycle helmets. This from the study’s Abstract:

Methods

We performed analysis of the 2012 NTDB abstracted information of all patients with an intracranial hemorrhage after bicycle related accidents. Regression analysis was performed.

Results

A total of 6,267 patients were included. 25.1%(n=1,573) of bicycle riders were helmeted. Overall 52.4%(n=3,284) patients had severe TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), and the mortality rate was 2.8%(n=176). Helmeted bicycle riders had 51% reduced odds of severe TBI (0.49 [0.43-0.55]; p<0.001) and 44% reduced odds of mortality (0.56; 95% CI, 0.34-0.78; p=0.010). Helmet use also reduced the odds of facial fractures by 31%(0.69; 95% CI, 0.58-0.81; p<0.001).

Conclusion

Bicycle helmet use provides protection against severe TBI, reduces facial fractures, and saves lives even after sustaining an intracranial hemorrhage.

The good news from this study? In a bicycle accident you are more than 50% less likely to sustain a TBI, 44% less likely to die and 31% less likely sustain a facial fracture if you are wearing a helmet (Insider Note: Ask Ben Roethlisberger to describe the pain of a facial fracture).

The bad news? Despite the good news only 25% of bicyclists wear helmets. In ten years nothing has changed.

Does this have anything to do with workers’ compensation? According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, if you’re one of the more than 73,000 bicycle messengers and couriers in the U.S. it might. And if you’re one of the more than 12,000 that navigate streets in southern California or one of the more than 5,000 that zip through Midtown Manhattan, or one of the 1,400 dodging traffic in Chicago’s Loop it might. Because, while all states require employers to provide helmets to their bicyclist employees, and while most states require employers to provide training that includes the benefits of helmets, no state requires the bicyclist to wear them. However, both New York City and Chicago have enacted local laws requiring employers to provide working cyclists helmets meeting either A.N.S.I. or Snell standards and further require the cyclists to wear them.  Although in the case of NYC, someone might want to pass the requirement on to the messenger and courier companies, the largest of which told me wearing a helmet is “totally up to the rider’s discretion.”

For now, we’re left with a mish-mash. Things are pretty much as they were back in 2006, along with the helmetless rider’s continuing mantra: “It’s all about the freedom of personal choice.” That may be true, but society, that’s you, I and everyone else, doesn’t have a choice about sending EMT Rescue Units to the scenes of cycle accidents and caring for those who sustain serious injury or death in the “Live Free Or Die” game.

 

 

The AI Robotic Tsunami: Coming To A Workplace Near You!

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

In 2013, Oxford professors Carl Frey and Michael Osborne published what became a highly read and highly cited study suggesting that machines could replace 47% of America’s jobs over the next 25 years. To say that they got the business world’s attention is a little bit like saying Ted Williams was a pretty good ballplayer.

The study, which examined more than 700 US occupations, found that jobs in transportation, logistics, and administrative and office work are at “high risk” for automation. “We identified several key bottlenecks currently preventing occupations being automated,” said Dr. Osborne when the study was released. “As big data helps to overcome these obstacles, a great number of jobs will be put at risk.”

Consider transportation. As of July 17, 2015, more than 20 Google self-driving cars have logged more than 1.9 million miles around California streets and have yet to cause an accident, although they’ve been hit 14 times by other cars, 11 of those hits being rearenders. So, how long do you think it will be before the transportation industry latches onto the self-driving phenomenon as a way to cut costs and increase productivity?

And logistics? Even now, Amazon and other retailers are flying drones around their warehouses delivering material for shipment, work that, before Dronedom, actual human beings performed, albeit more slowly and, every once in a while, with a bit of breakage.

And can we ignore IBM’s Watson, or Rethink Robotic’s Baxter (The AI parents just have to give their artificially intelligent children human names, don’t they?)?

The productivity increase is awesome, indeed. But the trade-off is a human job.

Of course, someone has to keep the drones flying. And someone has to keep Google’s cars humming along. This is a point the good Drs. Frey and Osborne did not examine deeply in their 2013 paper- that as jobs are eliminated due to automation, other jobs, more complex in most cases, will be created. This from the paper:

Our findings imply that as technology races ahead, low-skilled workers will move to tasks that are not susceptible to computerization – i.e., tasks that require creative and social intelligence. For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.

But, hang on a minute. Just when we begin to think that Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” is a’comin round the corner like an out-of-control, self-driving 18-wheeler, Forrester Research released yesterday The Future of Jobs, 2025: Working Side-By-Side With Robots (the study may be purchased from Forrester for $499.00). Authored by Forrester analyst J. P. Gownder, the paper only looks out ten years, compared to Frey and Osborne’s 25. Even so, Gownder’s prognosis is nowhere as bleak as the Oxfordians’. They postulate a total job loss of 71 million. Gownder, using government data and many interviews with business execs, academics and pundits, suggests a net job loss of 9.1 million, or 7% of the workforce.  Where I come from, J. P., that’s a lot of jobs, but I take your point.

Notwithstanding the competing research, what we can say is that big change is not coming; it’s already here. This is an industrial era evolution. There have been many before. Remember that before the automobile, there was a thriving market for buggy whips.

This is one of the topics I’ll be covering on Thursday, October 29, in my Keynote Address to the Idaho Industrial Commission’s 2015 Annual Seminar on Workers’ Compensation. I’ll be discussing how artificial intelligence, along with two other emerging employment issues, is impacting workers’ compensation and how smart employers can deal with it successfully.

Meanwhile, here’s a little something for workers who awaken one day to find their newest work partner is no longer Homo Sapiens, but rather Ratus Robotus.

Workers who adjust survive.
Many of them even thrive.

Allstate – How Could You? Worcester?

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

A stake through the heart.
That’s what it felt like yesterday when Allstate published its 10th annual America’s Best Drivers Report and awarded Worcester and Boston, two Massachusetts cities 38 miles apart, with the gold and silver medals, respectively, for most car crashes per capita in the nation.
Upon learning of this dubious distinction, local television stations instantly knew that such a story cried out for “man in the street interviews,” and we got plenty of those. Maybe there were people interviewed who were horrified, but most interviewees who made the cut for broadcast seemed to treat it as if it were a badge of honor.
Frankly, I felt a bit like Claude Rains in the film Casablanca who, just prior to collecting his winnings, exclaimed “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here.”
Boston drivers are legendary in their demolition derby attitudes. The driving Zeitgeist has forever treated traffic rules as purely advisory. A green light means “go,” and a yellow light means “go like hell.” Pedestrian crosswalks might as well not be there. If you’re riding a bike, you’d better have good radar. So, one learns early on that driving in Boston is not for the faint of heart.
And right now it’s at its worst as 152,000 college students return to 35 colleges for the next school year. Thirty-seven thousand live on campus in the heart of the city. Another 50,000 live in apartments around the city. The rest are commuters. The majority of the commuters ride the oldest-in-the-nation transit system. Boston University, alone, has more than 31,000 students.
So, I can absolutely understand Boston, a city I love, winning the trophy for 2nd place. But, geez, Worcester? Really? The most dangerous city in the America for car crashes? Worcester’s like a home town to me (so is Boston, by the way, so I’m doubly hurt).
Worcester has 181,000 people spread out over about 38 square miles. There are ten colleges in the city, not 35. Students total less than 35,000. Worcester never seems to have the driving hyperactivity one finds in Boston. Although the two cities are connected by the Massachusetts Turnpike umbilical cord, they are like yin and yang. They don’t even have the same water supply. It’s true that Worcester has a lot of traffic lights, so the yellow light “go like hell” possibility exists, but the traffic density is so much less than Boston’s that one rarely sees the Boston mania. Friends from Boston visit Worcester and think they’ve gone to the land of Zen.
Right now, you may be asking, “So, where’s the safest place to drive in America?” That, according to the driving gods at Allstate, would be Fort Collins, Colorado, a city of more than 56 square miles with a population nearly 30,000 less than Worcester’s. A city of two, count ’em, two colleges, one a community college, the other Colorado State University. A city with 30,000 college students, and I’m assuming that most of them always wear a smile and speak kindly of everyone.
Actually, Fort Collins looks like a beautiful place where everyone rides bikes without a worry and where the average blood pressure is so low that nobody has to worry about getting life insurance. Congratulations, Fort Collins.
The question I’m left with is this: How did Worcester, the city of the seven hills, home to the Hanover Insurance Group (and everyone knows that insurance employees are good drivers) earn Allstate’s first place, bottom of the bird cage award? Beats me. I’m stumped and, yes, shocked. My Great Mandala has been poleaxed.
I’m going out for a drive.

Do you have a 90-second plan for your organization?

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

On July 6, Samsung Executive and Asiana Airlines passenger David Eun posted a photo via Twitter, saying “I just crash landed at SFO. Most everyone seems fine. I’m OK. Surreal…”
Within seconds, horrified witness reports were being posted and shared on Twitter and other social media, reporters online kicked into gear finding out info about the airline and the flight. About 20-30 minutes later, TV began reporting on the event, cautiously taking much of their information from the social media reports. This event, like many other recent events, demonstrates how breaking news now occurs in the age of ubiquitous camera phones and social media.
Kudos to an industry that until this past weekend had logged only one commercial fatality since 2001. Sadly, two young Chinese students perished in this crash and dozens of other passengers sustained injuries, some quite serious and potentially life-changing. Nevertheless, it was remarkable that so many people survived this crash. Among other observations, one theme on social media was “hug an engineer today” in appreciation for their contributions to improving air travel safety.
Safety Officer first and foremost
One of the noteworthy stories that emerged was that of Lee Yoon-hye, the flight attendant who was last off the plane. You can read a story of her initial reports of the evacuation. Despite the ordeal, she was so composed that reporters did not realize she had been on the plane, they thought she was stationed as airport staff. She proceeded to do a press conference (in Korean, but just click to marvel at her composure) and only later at the hospital did she realize she had broken her tailbone. (See also: Harrowing tales of rescue after crash of Asiana Flight 214.)
In pop culture over the years, the job of the flight attendant has often been portrayed as a glorified cocktail server — and because flights are generally so safe, it’s easy to forget what the main responsibilities of the flight attendant are: first and foremost, safety, and when required, emergency response. Attendants undergo rigorous safety training which includes emergency passenger evacuation management, use of evacuation slides/life rafts, in-flight firefighting, survival in the jungle, sea, desert, ice, first aid, CPR, defibrillation, ditching/emergency landing procedures, decompression emergencies, Crew Resource Management and security. They are also often required to speak several languages because they have to communicate with international travelers.
Lessons to be learned
The National Transportation Safety Board was on the scene very quickly, beginning a thorough investigation and analysis of exactly what happened and why. This is expected to take some time, although happily enough, NTSB has an advantage in the number of on-the-scene witnesses and staff. All too often they are piecing fragments together and the staff reports are from a recovered black box. You can watch the NTSB’s most recent public report from Wednesday.
The evacuation standard for getting off a plane in an emergency is within 90 seconds – something that seems incredible if you stop and think how long it can take to deplane under normal circumstances, never mind in the midst of chaos and turmoil in a crash scene and fire. The recent NTSB reports are now saying that the orders to evacuate didn’t come until 90 seconds after landing – the pilots originally told passengers to stay in their seats. Perhaps pilots may have been waiting for rescue vehicles to get to the plane, it’s unclear. But when fire was spotted 90 seconds in, evacuation ensued. It’s easy to second guess decisions but it is up to the NTSB to gather more facts and determine what happened.
Lee’s exceptional safety training kicked in to gear on that Saturday crash and she saved lives. Think of her next time you shrug off the safety drill at the start of your next flight. More importantly, think of your organization’s emergency response plan. How ready would your organization be should an unexpected event occur. Could you evacuate the premises in 90 seconds or less? Do you have an assigned emergency response team or assigned safety staff? Fred Hosier offers 7 safety lessons any workers can take from SF plane crash at Safety News Alert – a excellent rundown of take-aways for any employer in any industry. As the NTSB report progresses, there will no doubt be other lessons in safety, planning, and emergency response – lessons for both for the airline industry and other businesses a well.
See also: Emergency Response Plans & Resources for Businesses
Related reading

Mental Illness in the Cockpit

Monday, April 9th, 2012

Clayton Osbon, 49, served as a pilot for Jet Blue Airlines for 12 years. On March 27 during Flight 191 from New York to Las Vegas, he suddenly began raving about terrorists and started pushing buttons and flipping switches in the cockpit, all the while telling air traffic controllers to shut up. His co-pilot had the presence of mind to suggest Osbon, the flight captain, go to the bathroom. When Osbon did, the co-pilot and another JetBlue pilot on board locked him out of the cockpit. Osbon started banging on the door and had to be subdued by passengers on the flight.
Osbon is now charged with interfering with a flight crew – an intriguing conundrum, as he was head of the flight crew with which he interfered. Osbon had passed a physical a few months prior to the incident, although it is unlikely that a detailed mental health evaluation was part of that physical.
Osbon’s friends have stated that he has no history of mental illness and had exhibited no symptoms that would have foretold the bizarre behavior on flight 191. It appears that with no warning signs, Osbon simply snapped, putting the passengers and crew at immediate risk.
(Mental) Fitness for Duty
This incident raises important issues about mental health and fitness for duty, especially in jobs which involve not just the well-being of a single worker, but the general public as well. A couple of years ago we blogged the saga of Bryan Griffin, a pilot for Quantas Airlines who had “uncontrollable urges” to crash airplanes. While he never actually followed through on his death wish, he continued to fly for about three years, while suffering from this obvious mental health problem. Quantas chose to risk disaster rather than remove Griffin from his pilot duties. Ironically, thirty years later he was awarded over $200K in disability pay for the stress of flying while he was mentally vulnerable, a ruling which left Quantas – and the rest of us – shaking our heads in disbelief.
In the months ahead we will learn more about Osbon’s sudden breakdown, including whether there were subtle indications that something was wrong. But at the heart of this story is the mystery of mental illness itself. While significant advances have been made in both the diagnosis and treatment of mental disabilities, much remains unknown. The Federal Aviation Authority has issued guidance on the use of anti-depressants for pilots, even while admitting that the science is tentative and subject to change. Pilots who are placed on anti-depressants are not allowed to fly for one year; it is reasonable to assume that Osbon will not return to the cockpit for at least a year, perhaps more.
The Paradox of Mental Illness
Even as unprecedented advances have been made in the treatment of mental illness, pervasive prejudice still remains. Individuals seeking care are often stigmatized; there is considerable public pressure for individuals to suppress symptoms and avoid treatment. Insurance coverage for treatment may be spotty, and for those without insurance, the emergency room is usually the only treatment option. In the above referenced guidance, the FAA estimates that about ten percent of the population suffers from depression, with the majority of these people working, raising families, driving motor vehicles and even flying airplanes.
Osbon’s case illustrates the difficulty in trying to establish viable policies on mental fitness for duty. As my southern friends would say, it’s like trying to nail Jello to a tree. We are reminded that just getting out of bed and heading off to work – let alone boarding an airplane – is an act of faith. We trust other drivers on the road to stay in their lanes, just as we assume that the pilot of our aircraft is rational, detail-oriented and totally focused on the job at hand. We as individuals may be a bit distracted, but everyone else is locked into what they are supposed to be doing. That’s not just a leap of faith, that’s an Evel Knievel rocket across the Snake River Canyon.

Low clearance: truckers, this one is for you

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011


A website called 11foot8 videos chronicles “the good, the bad and the ugly” of low clearance truck accidents at a single Durham NC trestle bridge. While one might think this is the purview of inexperienced drivers and rental trucks, the videos don’t lie: professionals have had their share of accidents, too.
When professionals make a mistake, the results can turn deadly. In September, four people were killed when a bus crashed into a railroad bridge in Syracuse after deviating from the normal route. And even non-fatal incidents wreak havoc in terms of injuries, property losses, hazards to pedestrians and other drivers, and costly traffic tie ups. Here are photos of four serious nonfatal truck and bridge collisions
Prevention tips
Prevention might seem obvious to some, but approximately 5,000 bridge-truck collisions per year say otherwise. Here are some pointers we gleaned from the pros:

  • Plan route in advance and stay on route
  • Check atlas and or gps systems in advance
  • Keep atlases and gps systems up to date
  • Check with any state or major city DOTs (examples: NYC; TX); they often provide good information about the local area
  • Be religious about watching for and heeding signage
  • If on an unfamiliar route, check with other drivers about hazards
  • Talk to shippers and receivers on your route about nearby low clearance
  • When in doubt, don’t risk it

Additional Resources
America’s Independent Truckers Association (AITA) offers an online database of low clearance bridges with heights broken down by state.
For situations that might require escorts, AITA maintains a truck escort referral listing
This trucker forum discusses low clearance solutions.

Commercial drivers & medical certification (and other alarming commercial transportation safety matters)

Thursday, October 7th, 2010

On Mother’s Day in 1999, Custom Bus Charters’ bus driver Frank Bedell veered off a highway near New Orleans, killing 22 passengers and injuring 20 others. Just 10 hours before this trip, Bedell was treated at a local hospital for “nausea and weakness.” He had been treated at least 20 times in the 21 months prior to the accident, and 10 of those times involved hospitalization for “life-threatening” heart and kidney disease. You can read more about this horrific crash, which remains one of the nation’s deadliest bus crashes, at NOLA.com: Loopholes let sick man drive, safety board says. Also of interest: Breaking the law went with the job.
This accident brought the issue of the medical competence of commercial drivers to the public attention in a dramatic way. In its subsequent report of the accident after the investigation, The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that “…the probable cause of this accident was the driver’s incapacitation due to his severe medical conditions and the failure of the medical certification process to detect and remove the driver from service. Other factors that may have had a role in the accident were the driver’s fatigue and the driver’s use of marijuana and a sedating antihistamine.
The incident and investigation prompted NTSB to issue Safety Recommendations revolving around medical certification of commercial drivers.
How are we doing today?
Nearly a decade later, how are these safety measures designed to protect the public from medically unsafe commercial drivers working out? Not too well, according to a recent investigative report by News21, which was published by MSNBC in the article Truckers fit to drive — if a chiropractor says so: “From 2002, when the recommendations were made, through 2008, the last year for which data is available, there were at least 826 fatal crashes involving medically unqualified or fatigued drivers, according to a News21 analysis of the FMCSA Crash Statistics database.”
The article paints a scary portrait of a driver medical certification program that is pretty broken. Truck drivers can pop into roadside clinics to pick up certifications issued after a cursory examination by almost any health professional. And that’s a good scenario – drivers can also download online certificates and fill them out themselves or ignore the requirement entirely. Forgeries are a common occurrence. Being caught without a certificate might result in a slap-on-the-wrist fine. While there have been calls for a national registry for medical certification of commercial drivers, the idea has made little progress. It will probably take the next big incident to ignite public outrage to motivate any change.
For a resource on current regulations, see the US Department of Transportation Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Medical Programs, which includes medical regulations and notices, including drug and alcohol testing.
The News21 story on commercial drivers is the third part in a series of four articles that deal with transportation and public safety. Here are the others:

Part 1:
Driving While Tired: Safety officials are slow to react to operator fatigue:
“NTSB does not track fatigue-related highway accidents on a regular basis. But in 1993, the board commissioned a study expecting to learn about the effects of drugs and alcohol on trucking accidents. Investigators studied all heavy-trucking accidents that year and made an unexpected discovery: Fatigue turned out to be the bigger problem. NTSB Crash investigators said driver fatigue played a key role in a bus accident in Utah in 2008 that killed nine people returning from a ski trip.
The study found 3,311 heavy truck accidents killed 3,783 people that year, and between 30 percent and 40 percent of those accidents were fatigue-related.”
Part 2: Video in the cockpit: Privacy vs. safety
In 200, the NTSB added a recommendation for video recorders to be installed in commercial and charter planes to its “most wanted” list. Pilot unions and other groups have lobbied this safety measure. See this story’s sidebar article: Shhhh! Your pilot is napping
Part 4: Outsourcing safety: Airplane repairs move to unregulated foreign shops
“More maintenance has moved overseas. Airlines are not required to use regulated repair shops. Foreign repair stations can go five years between inspections, and even then are often tipped off that inspectors are coming. Manuals are in English, but not all the workers read English. Drug tests of workers are illegal in some countries.
A News21 analysis of Federal Aviation Administration data showed that about 15,000 accidents or safety incidents in all aviation travel can be attributed at least in part to inferior maintenance or repairs since 1973, when the FAA started keeping such records. In these accidents at least 2,500 people died and 4,200 were injured.”
Most wanted list: transportation safety improvements
The NTSB keeps a most wanted list of transportation safety improvements, in which it makes recommendations for critical safety improvements for various transportation sectors. Recommendations are designed to improve public safety and save lives, but many have been on the list for years. In some cases, individual states may have requirements, but these recommendations are national in scope. While issues on the “most wanted list” are pending, individual employers might use the list as best practice guidance for safety programs to limit exposure both for workers compensation and other liability issues that might arise from commercial transportation accidents.
You can find more reports on transportation and public safety at News21, “a national initiative led by 12 of America’s leading research universities with the support of two major foundations” with a purpose of furthering in-depth and investigative reporting. In 2010, one of the main areas of focus has been Breakdown: Traveling Dangerously in America.

Toyota: Hands Off!

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, is in the midst of a public relations nightmare. Over two million vehicles have been recalled for a problem with acceleration: gas pedals are prone to sticking, which leads to unstoppable cars hurtling along at high speeds. For months, Toyota denied that there was a problem. Well, there is no denying it now. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood has advised owners of the vehicles not to drive them. [Update: he is backpedaling from his statement.]That’s over two million people who are not supposed to drive for the foreseeable future. With all due respect, Mr. Secretary, in this culture where the automobile is less a luxury than an essential, what are these millions of drivers supposed to do?
For the sake of clarity, here are the specific vehicles with a pedal problem:
2007-10 Camry
2009-10 RAV4
2009-10 Corolla
2009-10 Matrix
2005-10 Avalon
2010 Highlander
2007-10 Tundra
2008-10 Sequoia
2004-09 Prius
2007-10 Tacoma
2009-10 Venza
We frequently blog the compelling issue of personal risk management: the myriad decisions we all make in mitigating risk and prolonging the chances of living to see another day. Well, we have here a crisis of huge proportions that confronts Toyota drivers with some very difficult decisions. In keeping with our usual mandate, we will try to focus primarily, but not exclusively, on the implications for workers comp.
At the head of the line are companies that operate Toyota fleets, or that have employees operating Toyotas leased by the employer. At this moment there are irrevocably immense liabilities in allowing employees to continue to drive the vehicles listed above. Of course, the usual “to and fro” issues prevail in determining whether employees injured in an accident are covered by workers comp. (Astute readers will recall that in California, anyone driving a company car is covered by comp 24/7.) But even where comp should be the “exclusive remedy,” employers are vulnerable to suits alleging “wilful intent” should they insist that Toyota drivers stay behind the wheel. Prudent risk managers will rent alternative vehicles until the Toyotas have been repaired.
For employees driving their own Toyotas, the “to and fro” rule prevails. However, what happens when an employee is “in the course and scope” of employment and gas pedal lock leads to an accident? Will the employer be held liable for the injuries to third parties? Should employers prohibit employees from driving the compromised Toyotas while working? If yes, how are these employees supposed to do their jobs? Who pays for the replacement vehicles?
Secretary Lahood has accelerated the risks associated with the Toyota recall. He has put the nation on notice than any use of the above vehicles entails unreasonable risk.
This all brings to mind a Toyota ad campaign from an earlier decade. The slogan was: “Get your hands on a Toyota. You’ll never let go.” I remember thinking at the time that there was a gruesome ambiguity to the wording. The image of a dead driver behind the wheel of a crushed vehicle rose up in my (admittedly hyper-active) imagination. Well, that slogan has come back to haunt the automotive giant. This is no time to put your hands on the wheel of a Toyota. Until this immanent hazard is addressed, it’s definitely time to let go.
Addendum:
We just noticed that Renaissance Alliance’s Consumer Insurance Blog has a post on what to do if you experience sudden acceleration – it includes a video and some tips from Consumer Reports – whether you own a Toyota or not, it’s a good safety skill to learn

Rhode Island’s Beacon Mutual: Promises, Promises

Tuesday, August 7th, 2007

In response to a workers comp crisis, state legislatures are often tempted to set up their own insurance companies. Unfortunately, the insurer of last resort frequently becomes the one and only insurer: bloated by patronage and the recipient of unfair market advantages, the state fund can become a monstrous leviathan, dwarfing other carriers and all but eliminating competition in the marketplace.
Take Rhode Island. Beacon Mutual dominates the market. It would be nice to report that the dominance is based upon fair pricing and sheer competence, but it isn’t. Studies last year (one by Guiliani Associates) revealed that the fund made political payoffs, undercharged companies with ties to politicians and misspent millions. (See The Insider’s perspective when the scandal first broke here.) Rhode Island might be small, but when it comes to corruption, they think big.
Governor Carcieri did not mince his words:

Specifically, this market conduct examination shows that Beacon Mutual’s former leadership fostered a corporate culture that suffered from weak management and controls; inappropriate producer, agency and vendor relationships; favoritism and bias in pricing; inappropriate and lavish spending; and a total disregard for public oversight and for Beacon’s public mission and purpose. In short, Beacon Mutual’s conduct was completely inappropriate and reprehensibly abusive of the public trust.

Underwriting for Gangsters
In response to these rather embarassing findings, Beacon Mutual has made a a lot of promises. You can find 79 specific recommendations and Beacon Mutual’s response here. Let’s focus for the moment just on the underwriting process: the way an insurer evaluates risk and prices policies. It’s supposed to be objective and fair. It’s supposed to operate the same way for every risk in a given class. Here’s how it operated under Beacon Mutual:
Underwriters priced accounts any way they liked. If you were well connected, you might enjoy a substantial discount over your competitors. Two companies, same work, very different cost of insurance (with no relationship to prior losses).
– Now Beacon Mutual promises to file pricing plans and rigidly apply the same criteria to all risks.
The former head of underwriting had no background in insurance or underwriting. He maintained a “VIP list” of companies that should receive favorable rates, including the companies of board members and those with ties to high-ranking managers and certain Rhode Island politicians. Apparently, the only risk assessment he was concerned with involved not getting caught. (He screwed that one up, too.)
– Now Beacon Mutual has hired a professional underwriter as a Vice President.
The unusual underwriting process at Beacon Mutual involved a committee comprising, among others, of the human resource director and the VP for information Systems. I’m sure that those folks had interesting things to say about risk, but their opinions were on the level of the proverbial “man in the street.”
– Beacon Mutual promises more “transparency and control” in the underwriting process.
There were no written procedures for underwriting. The process was whatever political expediency dictated at the time.
– Beacon Mutual now has an underwriting manual. (Gee, I hope they follow it.)
Documents at Beacon Mutual had no date stamp, so it was pretty easy to retrofit documentation when the need arose.
– Beacon Mutual now has a date stamping machine (and they promise to use it).
Finally, if Beacon Mutual liked an agent, they cut a bigger commission check. Conversely, if an agent dared to write a policy with some other carrier, they would likely see a reduction in their future commissions. Agents had to think long and hard about writing business with an outside carrier.
– Beacon Mutual now promises to eliminate higher commissions for preferred agents.
Open Market in RI?
Until recently, if an outside carrier offered a policy to a RI company, Beacon could arbitrarily lower their rates to keep the business. No one can compete against that kind of advantage.
So is Beacon Mutual really going to play fair? Is this a good time for other carriers to re-enter the RI marketplace? Maybe. Beacon Mutual has made a lot of promises. They have committed to the kind of transparency that governs virtually all other comp carriers. Beacon Mutual has long ruled RI, the way a bully rules a neighborhood. Bullies don’t like to give up control. Only time will tell if Beacon Mutual and the state’s traditionally lax regulators are really serious about leveling the playing field.