After 4 passengers died in the Metro-North wreck on December 1, suspicion rapidly focused on the engineer after it became apparent that he either dozed off or was in some sort of “highway hypnosis” state before the crash—but does that put him at fault, or is he just human? According to reporting online by Murray Weiss on the Huffington Post (Dec. 16), investigators have yet to turn up any evidence that the engineer committed any crime, even if he dozed off; it turns out, surprise! falling asleep is not a crime. So far, it appears that he was home all day the day before the accident, went to bed at 8:30 p.m. the night before his early-morning job shift began, got a good night’s sleep, and was alert when he went on duty. Drug tests are not complete, but investigators don’t expect to find anything there, either.
A major U.S.A. rail passenger wreck in California years ago led to major changes in future rail safety, and was caused by the engineer’s using a cell phone instead of watching the track. In the Metro-North wreck, however, investigators have determined that there was no cell phone use; in fact, the engineer’s cell phone was turned off. The engineer is a volunteer firefighter in his home town and reportedly devastated by the accident; he has cooperated fully with the investigation. He has an unblemished, 11-year record in running trains. Summing up, a law enforcement source said that “falling asleep, by itself, is fundamentally not a crime, not even for a motorman driving a train. There was nothing mitigating here. He was not drunk, on the phone, or out partying the night before, and he went to sleep at a reasonable hour.”
If the engineer is not at fault, who is? Attention is likely to focus instead on management and operating procedures. Human failure is always a possibility in any endeavour. At the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of those managing human resources to develop systems to mitigate risk from all sources, even including people falling asleep on the job. It’s easy to say “he’s at fault, the rules say he can’t fall asleep,” but people are people, and people are known to fall asleep. Management can hardly say that this is a new concept. to them.
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