Trains, Cars, Robots, and Humans


In the early morning hours of Monday March 24, 2014, a Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) Train careened out of control, through a bumper mechanism designed to stop it, and up the escalator, at the O'Hare Airport stop. Fortunately, it being 3:00 a.m., not many people were on the train, and none of the injuries were life-threatening or appear overly serious. You can read about the event and aftermath here.,0,1750012.story

How Did This Happen?

It is still early, but news agencies, as well as the driver's own union representatives, are indicating that the driver, who had been with the CTA about a year, admitted to "nodding off" just before the train scaled the escalator. The incident occurred about six hours into her shift.

There are rules galore, managed and mandated by State and Federal agencies, as well as internal rules promulgated, taught, and enforced by the CTA, which are known as Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).

The rules put out by the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB), similar to the stringent rules that apply to long haul trucking, as well as the SOPs, specify rest periods, number of hours of operation, and the like. In theory, drivers and operators should be well-rested and fully functional during all parts of their shifts.

By all accounts we have so far, those rules seem to have been followed.

Still, a train crashed through a station and climbed an escalator, which has many of us pondering how in the world this can occur.

Built in Protections

The train tracks have a mechanism designed to stop the train at the end of the line. One theory floated is that if the operator was nodding off when the train hit this bumper, it could have caused her hand to push forward on the throttle lever, causing the acceleration up the escalator. Even if this is true, one has to wonder how useful this stopper bumper mechanism is if it didn't stop the train.

The trains themselves have devices that are supposed to cut power if the train is speeding in certain areas or driving erratically. Current indications are that the train was not speeding as it entered the station, so none of this kicked in.

Yet despite all those mechanical innovations, safety rules, training, and Federal, State, Local, and Internal CTA rules, this still happened.

Which begs the question of whether there is a way to make our world completely safe.

Perhaps the answer is as simple as the fact that sometimes machinery driven by humans, controlled by humans, designed by humans, and legislated upon by humans, acts, human and is imperfect.

"Foolproof" Cars are Coming

Much talk over the past several years has focused on the advent of driverless or self-driving cars. While still in the developmental stages, the technology is there. Clearly, you can purchase a car that parks itself, and many cars have cameras and warning systems built in already. Self-driving cars are coming soon.

Theoretically, self-driving cars should do away with a great majority of traffic collisions. Theoretically, they should send me to a very early retirement.

Not so fast.

If all the government agencies, internal rules, and technological innovations cannot stop an El train from riding up an escalator, then why should we assume self-driving cars will be perfectly safe?

The reality is that our world is imperfect, danger exists even when rules are followed, and technology is not fail-safe or a guarantee of an Eden-like aura of protection.

It is great to live in such a complex, multi-faceted world. It can also, on occasion, be dangerous.