Why didn’t the driver stop?
In a a tragic accident between a bus and train in Ottawa, Canada, 6 people died, 8 were critically injured and 30 were hospitalized. The crash happened in the morning rush hour when the bus ran through the guard rail and collided with a train. Passengers in the bus reported screaming at the bus driver while on course but even that did not prevent the accident.
Investigations by the Transportation Safety board to determine the cause of the accident have begun but an obvious question is – Why didn’t the driver see the oncoming train even in broad day light? Did he fall asleep? Were there issues with the brakes? Is this a localized driving problem?
Accidents at level crossing is a universal issue. At least 6000 people die at level crossings every year and there is even an International Level Crossing Awareness Day (ILCAD) dedicated to this cause. Canada alone has seen 257 accidents in the past decade. In India, 63% of railway related fatalities are attributed to accidents at unmanned level crossings.
So what explains this behavior that seems to be prevalent globally? One possible explanation is the negative expectancy of the train by the bus driver. The way we see things is based on how we look for them. It is influenced by what we expect to see. So we are perceptually restricted and tend to pay attention to things that we expect. Psychologists term this phenomena as “Inattentional blindness”. This famous Selective Attention Test cleverly demonstrates our propensity to miss things.
Why do we suffer from this problem? It is actually an evolutionary mechanism to help us cope with the sensory chaos in the world. It helps us makes sense of the infinite visual stimuli that is always present around us and act accordingly. However, in certain cases this mechanism may backfire.
The attention spans of experienced drivers who have driven through a place multiple times tend to be very low due to the similarity and monotony of the environment. The low probability of finding a train also influences their expectation. Thus, breaking this monotony and changing their expectation is key to managing this behavior. This is the focus of our solutions that have been implemented at certain unmanned level crossings in India. Refer this blog post for more details.
Could these solutions prevent this tragedy? We can’t be certain but our research shows they can.
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