The Anatomy of a Trolley Accident
On my last day in San Diego, I saw a young woman get hit by the trolley. The gasps of other people waiting on the platform prompted me to look up just as she was struck and then dragged for several feet. Did the driver come in too fast? Did he not use his horn? Had she been distracted by her phone? I do not know for certain, though her cracked smartphone was lying next to her motionless body. Good Samaritans, more courageous and likely more competent in first aid than myself, rushed to help her before I got over my shock and dropped my luggage. For weeks afterwards, I kept checking news outlets only to find nothing. Did she live? I still do not know. What I did discover is that people are struck by the trolley fairly frequently, possibly more often than one might expect. Many, like the incident I witnessed, go unreported in the media. Why would an ostensibly sane technological civilization tolerate such a slowly unfolding and piecemeal disaster? What could be done about it?
I do not know of any area of science and technology studies that focuses on the kinds of everyday accidents killing or maiming tens or hundreds of thousands of people every year, even though examples are easy to think of: everything from highway fatalities to firearm accidents. The disasters typically focused on are spectacular events, such as Three Mile Island, Bhopal or the Challenger explosion, where many people die and/or millions bear witness. Charles Perrow, for instance, refers to the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island as a “normal accident:” an unpredictable but unavoidable consequence of highly complex and tightly coupled technological systems.
Though seemingly unrelated, the tragedy I witnessed was perhaps not so different from a Three Mile Island or a Challenger explosion. The light rail trolley in San Diego is clearly a very complex sociotechnical system relying on electrical grids, signaling systems at grade crossing as well as the social conditioning of behaviors meant to keep riders out of danger. Each passenger as well as could be viewed as component of a large sociotechnical network of which their life is but one component. The young woman I saw, if distracted by her phone, may have been a casualty of a global telecommunications network, dominated by companies interested in keeping customers engrossed in their gadgets, colliding with that of the trolley car. Any particular accident causing the injury or death of a pedestrian might be unpredictable but the design of these systems, now coupled and working at cross purposes, would seem to render accidents in general increasingly inevitable.
A common tendency when confronted with an accident, however, is for people to place all the blame on individuals and not on systems. Indeed, after the event I witnessed, many observers made their theories clear. Some blamed the driver for coming too fast. Others claimed the injured young woman was looking at her phone and not her surroundings. A man on the next train I boarded even muttered, “She probably jumped” under his breath.
I doubt this line of reasoning is helpful for improving contemporary life, as useful as it might be for witnesses to quickly make sense of tragedy or those most culpable to assuage their guilt. At the end of the day, a young woman either is no longer living or must face a very different life than she envisioned for herself; friends, family and maybe a partner must endure personal heartbreak; and a trolley driver will struggle to live the memory of the incident. Victim blaming likely exacerbates the degree to which the status quo and potentially helpful sociotechnical changes are left unexamined. Indeed, Ford actively used the strategy of blaming individual drivers to distract attention away from the fact that the design of the gas tank in the Pinto was inept and dangerous.
The platform where the accident occurred had no advance warning system for arriving trains. It was an elevated platform, which eliminated the need for grade crossings but also had the unintended consequence of depriving riders of the benefit of their flashing red lights and bells. Unlike metros, the trolley trains operate near the grade level of the platform. Riders are often forced to cross the tracks to either exit the platform or switch lines. The trolleys are powered by electricity and are eerily silent, except for a weak horn or bell that is easy to miss if one is not listening for it (and it may often come too late anyway). At the same time, riders are increasingly likely to have headphones on or have highly alluring and distracting devices in their hands or pants pockets.
Technologically encouraged “inattention blindness” has been receiving quite a lot of attention as increasingly functional mobile devices flood the market. Apart from concerns about texting while driving and other newly emerging habits, there are worries that such devices have driven the rise in pedestrian and child accidents. British children on average receive their first cell phone at eleven years old, paralleling a three-fold increase in their likelihood of dying or being severely injured on the way to school. Although declining for much of a decade, childhood accident rates have risen in the US over the last few years. Some suggest that smartphones have fueled an increase in accidents stemming from “distracted parenting.” Of course, inattention blindness is not solely a creation of the digital age, one thinks of stories told about Pierre Curie dying after inattentively crossing the street and getting run over by a horse-drawn carriage. Yet, it would definitely be act of intentional ignorance to not note the particular allures of digital gadgetry.
What if designers of trolley stations were to presume that riders would likely be distracted, with music blaring in their ears, engrossed in a digital device or simply day dreaming? It seems like a sensible and simple precaution to include lights and audio warnings. The Edmonton LRT, for instance, alerts riders of incoming trains. Physically altering the platform architecture, however, seems prohibitively expensive in the short term. A pedestrian bridge installed in Britain after a teenage girl was struck cost about two million pounds. A more radical intervention might be altering cell phone systems or Wi-Fi networks so that devices are frozen with a warning message when a train is arriving or departing, allowing, of course, for unimpeded phone calls to 911.
Yet, the feasibility or existence of potentially helpful technological fixes does not mean they will be implemented. Trolley systems and municipalities may need to be induced or incentived to include them. Given the relative frequency of incidents in San Diego, for instance, it seems that the mere existence of a handful or more injuries or deaths per year is insufficient by itself. I would not want to presume that the San Diego Metropolitan Transit Service is acting like Ford in the Pinto case: intentionally not fixing a dangerous technology because remedying the problem is more expensive than paying settlements with victims. Perhaps it is simply a case of “normalized deviance,” in which an otherwise unusual event is eventually accepted as a natural or normal component of reality. Nevertheless, continuous non-decision has the same consequences as intentional neglect.
It is not hard to envision policy changes might lessen the likelihood of similar events in the future. Audible warning devices could be mandated. Federal regulations are too vague on this matter, leaving too much to the discretion of the operator and transit authority. Light rail systems could be evaluated at a regional or national according to their safety and then face fines or subsidy cuts if accident-frequency remains above a certain level. Technologies that could enhance safety could be subsidized to a level that makes implementation a no-brainer for municipalities.
Enabling the broadcast to or freezing of certain digital devices on train platforms would clearly require technological changes in addition to political ones. Currently Wi-Fi and cell signals are not treated as public to the same degree as broadcast TV and radio. Broadcasts on the latter two are frequently interrupted in the case of emergencies, but the former are not. Given the declining share of the average Americans media diet that television and radio compose, it seems reasonable to seek to extend the reach and logic of the Emergency Alert System to other media technologies and for other public purposes.
Much like the unthinking acceptance of the tens of thousands of lives lost each year on American roads and highways, it would too easy to view accidents like the one I saw as simply a statistical certainty or, even worse, the “price of modernity.” Every accident is a tragedy, a mini-disaster in the life of a person and those connected with them. It is easy to imagine simple design changes and technological interventions that could have reduced the likelihood of such events. They are neither expensive nor require significant advances in technoscientific know-how. A sane technological civilization would not neglect such simple ways of lessening needless human suffering.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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