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Viewpoint, Mark Whitby - History Lessons, Learning from disasters

NCE's Historic Disasters Challenge, the deadline for which has been extended to Monday 19 November (, is a timely reminder that we live on our past and learn from our mistakes.

Unfortunately, the understanding of the underlying causes of many disasters is frustrated by the legal process, which can mean that the evidence is buried for years.

But there have been some refreshing insights given recently. Good examples are the US reports on the Columbia Shuttle disaster and Hurricane Katrina.

These reports, while looking at the physical causes of the disasters, also focus on the systemic management culture.

Closer to home, the Cullen Report on the Paddington Train Crash, which took a number of years to come out after the event, is equally interesting, particularly when one discovers that the Transport Police failed to secure vital black-box evidence in the Slough signal box. In particular, it highlighted the need for scenario training that could, have prevented the disaster.

The train travelled for approximately 500m, having missed the signal, before the signalmen allegedly alerted the driver to the potential disaster. They also had the option of switching the points. One wonders what the conversation was they were having at the time.

What each of the reports demonstrates is that there is seldom a single cause leading to an accident, and that often there is, behind the scenes, a systemic weakness in the chain of command. Two recent legal cases have interesting repercussions.

First, the case against Scotland Yard for the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Tube Station, which was brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). This prosecution is highly relevant and suggests that, while individual officers were not responsible, the corporate body failed in its duty of care.

The other case is closer to home, as far as engineers are concerned, and involves the current inquest into the death of Iveta Iravanian, who was crossing four lanes of one-way traffic in Victoria when, apparently, the green man switched to red, leaving her only four seconds before the traffic lights themselves went green. She was struck by a National Express Coach in the last lane and died shortly afterwards. That the pedestrian lights only had four seconds before the traffic lights turned green is contrary to the 14-second recommendation but is not against any law. However, it is possible evidence of a lack of care awarded to pedestrians by the traffic engineers concerned. The time interval has subsequently been extended.

I would argue that there is a case to be brought by the HSE against Transport for London (TfL). No individual engineer wittingly made the situation unsafe, but it would appear that TfL failed to maintain a holistic view of the overall safety.

We might wonder what purpose such prosecutions may have.

In the case of Scotland Yard's conviction there is much for all the police to learn from. The prosecution of TfL would reveal similar lessons for all engineers. But, while I suspect that in the case of the police one or two lives might be saved in a year, lessons learned for engineers could save 20.

Mark Whitby is chairman of Ramboll Whitbybird

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