Accident Express?

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“Basic safety culture warrants safety at the design stage. Safety engineers and managers who have safety responsibilities need to take into account that there will be defaulters (voluntary or otherwise), day dreamers, and negligent and unfamiliar road users”.

The rush with which the metro system was put in place resulted in the same rush in witnessing accidents and near misses. Some time ago a metro user was reported to have been hurt when the tram braked suddenly for whatever reasons. A little later one of the trams met with an accident involving a car at the Beau Bassin –Vandermeersch junction. “Jamais deux sans trois”, goes the saying in Moliere’s language. Now we have a fatal accident. One is never less.

Never has a project been subjected to so much controversy as the one relating to the introduction of the metro express system in Mauritius. The outcry of those who were forced to vacate their dwellings amid anger, frustration and tears is still vivid. What was dreaded since the beginning, happened. It takes only one fatality to arouse yet more excruciating anger of a wider population. A situation that could have been prevented, a situation that was foreseeable, and foreseeable by any reasonable person. (Reasonable Person. A phrase frequently used in tort and Criminal Law to denote a hypothetical person in society who exercises average care, skill, and judgment in conduct and who serves as a comparative standard for determining liability.)

It’s a pity that the metro, or tram or whatever people may call it, has, after quite a few near misses, finally reportedly collided with a motorist resulting in the death of the latter. Who between the motorist and the tram driver is at fault is not so much of material importance as it is to find out whether we had a safe system in place. It’s up to the authorities to investigate on any possible infringement of road traffic laws. In any case the question arises as to whether an accident, in the circumstances it happened, could have been foreseen? Predictability forms part of any management system.

People in the vicinity of the unfortunate event aver traffic lights are not appropriately situated and not conspicuously visible. Others as in the case of the accident at Beau Bassin believe that the car driver did not observe the traffic sign. Whatever it is the purpose of traffic signs is to warn people on the danger ahead and in no case they can out of their own existence prevent the danger. They are what may be termed as “passive” safety provisions. What we need is an “active system” or a “foolproof system” that will actually curb the danger. And this is not a myth.

Many people, and unsurprisingly the authorities, were quick at blaming road users and drivers for what they easily term as “reckless” behaviour. Although it may be assumed that these people have their part of responsibility, the issue is one which goes beyond simplistic reasoning and “judging”. But this does not seem to have triggered so much of a positive response from the authorities, except that they keep saying they are still looking into ways and means to bring remedial actions.

From a professional point of view, what appears to be a mere instance of perceived negligent or careless driving is rather a matter of predictability on the part of the authorities, the promoters, the building and operating companies, and all those involved in the design and commissioning of the system. There seems to be a glaring failure in the system. Someone somewhere must have skipped a step: that of putting in place an effective safety system; a system that would, in addition, cater for customs, social and cultural considerations, among others.

Life is priceless. Basic safety culture warrants safety at the design stage. Safety engineers and managers who have safety responsibilities need to take into account that there will be defaulters (voluntary or otherwise), day dreamers, and negligent and unfamiliar road users.

Are there suitable and reasonable alternatives to level crossing? Only naivety can suggest otherwise. Options, albeit costly, do exist. They vary from overhead crossing like the one at Rose Hill to installing barriers at junctions to avoid interference with road traffic. It’s all a question of reasonable practicability of taking measures that would go a long way towards minimizing risks and protecting people. So opaque the system appears to be that ascertaining whether suitable and proper risk assessments were carried out prior to the introduction of the novel transportation system may be fraught with difficulty.

Was it reasonable not to consider the alternative options in the face of foreseeable mishaps with the potential of causing undue harm and stress, and even death? Only the authorities and those concerned with the project can tell. How much more would it have cost to resort to available options? Billions have been spent and God knows how much more is being injected in a system which is putting added burden on all concerned including police officers, drivers, road users, travellers and others around and along the metro track. 

In considering whether taking a measure is reasonably practicable, the principle is to evaluate the degree of risk against the time, trouble, cost and physical difficulty of taking measures to avoid the risk. If the risk is greater, then a greater preventative measure may be expected to control it. In the foregoing one needs to answer whether the risk involving death was of minor importance in relation to the cost of taking alternative measures in obviating the risk. It’s only then, and only then, that one can judge whether the authorities and all those concerned stood up to the responsibilities they were entrusted with.

Note: This article was written for This Week News Mauritius on February 24, 2020

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