How is the risk of transport failure managed? From a bus breaking down to a major bridge failure, the resilience of transport systems depends on clear allocation of responsibilities for coping with each contingency. As the final statements are made in the Edinburgh tram inquiry it seems that everyone who tried to manage the project well was thwarted by a system that disempowered them. How is it that even in the 21st century basic failures in the clear allocation of rights and responsibilities continue to be made?
It is not only transport that suffers from this malaise. Dame Judith Hackitt in her final report of the independent review into the Grenfell Tower tragedy identified that the greatest problem was that nobody could be clearly identified as being responsible for critical safety decisions. This resulted in a basic level of system failure which Hackitt argued would be repeated in other disasters until accountability was more clearly allocated.
The public response to the Hackitt review gives some clues about why these issues are politically difficult to fix. Hackitt wants to ban a culture where everyone blames everyone else. However, media commentators and politicians alike condemned her for failing to ban types of building materials. If she had taken responsibility for banning any building materials she would have contradicted her clear message that the people best able to make good decisions should be empowered appropriately. Nobody thought that flammable cladding panels on a high-rise tower block like Grenfell Tower were a good idea, but everyone felt able to proceed with the unsafe building refurbishment by covering their backs.
Transport systems are no less complex than tall buildings. 1710 people died on UK roads last year, 1449 more than in building fires. The European Road Safety Council has suggested that half of the current fatalities on European roads could be saved by adopting the latest safety technologies in all vehicles. The total UK transport death toll is well over 2000 people per year If the scope to save deaths caused by poor air quality, and other serious transport related health hazards, are added the deaths from collisions. Nobody is explicitly taking decisions that lead to more people dying, but we now have a growing and very welcome debate about how to allocate liability more explicitly.
The Association of British Insurers has welcomed moves to clarify the allocation of responsibility because the legal costs of uncertainty are high and growing, including on vehicle emissions. DfT’s pathway to driverless cars identifies that the laws on insurance will need to change to address these growing market failures. The Roadshare campaign led by Edinburgh based personal injury lawyer Brenda Mitchell has long argued that there has been a major market failure since pedestrians, and some cyclists, are not insured. This means that pedestrians injured or killed by vehicles, and who may incur high costs through being unable to work or even funeral expenses, have needed to take vehicle drivers and their insurance companies to court to get even basic compensation. For many years DfT argued that fault would need to be proven before liability could be allocated, but the rethink prompted by the new challenges of greater vehicle automation is now leading to a broad consensus. All road users should be protected from dangerous machines, including their emissions.
Managing risks of injury and death from vehicles is only the starting point for addressing systemic failures in transport. The process of working out who is responsible for each element of the transport system defines the rights and responsibilities to provide services, earn money and meet people’s needs. The insurance industry offers a business model that helps to manage some types of risk, but many other new business models are also needed. At a recent transport summit organised by Transport Times, Bill Reeve of Transport Scotland observed in relation to integrated ticketing that the “Ghostbuster” question now needed to be asked “who are you gonna call?” The recognition within government that, for integrated systems to function more effectively, accountability to service users must be more clearly allocated, could finally bring focus to what has probably been the greatest barrier to integration. Similarly, for recent rail disruption transport ministers across the UK have largely chosen to deflect criticism than seek to share responsibility for the contracts they have overseen, but this culture needs to change.
Whether for rail or road nobody is fully empowered, and everyone is partly responsible. There are encouraging signs that the need to change obsolete legislation, business models and attitudes is now recognised. However, it has taken 40 years to act on Lord Denning’s call for the challenges of automation to be recognised when people and vehicles share roads. The instincts to blame others for system level problems run deep. Only when risk and reward are managed equitably to recognise the capabilities of each partner, will longstanding integrated system failure be successfully tackled.
This article first appeared in Transport Times in July 2018