Running on Automatic

As investigations continue into Monday’s collision of two Washington D.C. Metrorail trains that left nine dead and about 80 injured, at least part of the focus appears to be on the fact that the moving train was operating in automatic mode – meaning that it was primarily controlled by a computer. The age of the train and the electronic signal control system appear to be other areas of focus. While it is far too early to speculate on the exact cause of the crash and likely a variety of factors contributed to what is the worst crash in Metrorail’s history, the incident raises some interesting questions. There can be no doubt that the use of technology has led to a safer workplace. Workplace injury rates are now at their lowest level since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking information in the 1970s, according to the agency. But whether it’s a subway car, an aircraft, or a factory manufacturing line an over-reliance on automation may also be a liability. Our fellow bloggers over at Workers Comp Insider observe that the problem may lie in the concept of a system that cannot fail, because ultimately no mechanical system can be totally fail-safe. They also raise an interesting issue: if computers are operating trains, how much attention on the part of the driver is required? Check out I.I.I. information on workers compensation.

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