As negligence lawyers, we spend a lot of time looking at tragedies in hindsight. To win a case, we have to prove that a catastrophic accident could have been, and should have been, prevented through the use of reasonable precautions. We thus spend a lot of time investigating accidents to reveal what the defendant should have done differently.
Two recent tragedies in the news have reminded me of the deadly consequences of shared responsibility.
“Shared responsibility” sounds like a sensible idea - two sets of eyes are better than one, right? And even more eyes is even better, right? The ironic truth, however, is that people often become less safety conscious, and thus more irresponsible and reckless, when they believe others are looking out for them.
In the Netherlands, for example, many cities and towns have experimented with an idea that sounds crazy at first: removing all of the lights and signs at intersections. Road designers in Europe have found - and many road safety experts in the United States believe - that these safety features cause people to stop thinking about the circumstances around them. Instead of promoting safety, the traffic signals cause people to turn off their brains and blindly follow the signs. Removing the signs, then, forces drivers and pedestrians to be on guard about their own safety and safety of others, resulting in a reduction in overall crashes.
Which brings me back the two tragedies. An article in this month’s Outside magazine describes in detail how a group of expert skiers somehow found themselves voluntarily skiing in an avalanche-prone area right after new snowfall, causing an avalanche that left three of them dead. When each of the skiers went out, they mistakenly depended on each other to be vigilant about their own safety; in the end, none of them really thought through the situation. As the article explains:
ALL OF THE WARNING signs had been there, glaring and obvious: heaps of new snow, terrain that would funnel a slide into a gully, a large and confident group with a herd mentality, and a forecast that warned of dangerous avalanche conditions. All of us had been trained to recognize these risk factors, yet we did not heed them. Why?
"In a group, you feel less accountable for making decisions," Peikert said later. "Because it's one or two people making the call. It's like a riot-if one person throws a rock, everyone starts throwing rocks."
There is a sea change occurring in avalanche education. A decade ago, courses focused on digging snow pits and analyzing weak layers. But then, says Lel Tone, an avalanche-safety instructor, "we realized we were giving people a false sense of confidence. Looking at the statistics, there was a period of time when people who had taken an Avy 1 course were the ones being caught in avalanches."
In the other tragedy, last weekend the residents of Midland, Texas were shocked by an unbelievable accident in which a tractor-trailer carrying Iraqi and Afghanistan war heroes in a parade was struck by a train. The NTSB has already concluded that, at the time of the accident, the train crossing’s signals were working properly, and that they had given off their warnings well in advance of the actual accident. Despite the train crossing warnings, the driver of the truck not only drove onto the tracks, but did so without adequate room in front of him to drive all the way through, a blatant violation of safe truck driving practices.
How on earth could that happen? How could a licensed, qualified commercial driver foolishly ignore railroad crossing signals and enter the tracks without adequate room to pull forward? I think that, in time, the NTSB investigation will reveal that the problem was, ironically, the police escort. I don’t mean that the officers did something wrong - but my hunch is that the truck driver, in the middle of a parade with several police escorts, figured that the police officers were looking out for traffic hazards in general, and so let his guard down and blindly followed the parade float ahead of him.
These two tragedies are thus a reminder to us all to beware the dangers of shared responsibility. If you’re not 100% sure who is looking out for safety, then it’s up to you and you alone.