The “Costa Concordia”: Risk compensation and human error.

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On the night of January 19th 2012, the “Costa Serena” passed within a few miles of the wreck of the “Costa Concordia”. It is unlikely the passengers could see the remains of the capsized cruiser in the dark but they had certainly watched footage of it. A big rock sticks out of the lower hull, part of a reef just a few hundred meters away from the island of Giglio, Italy. The “Costa Concordia” with its 3.000 passengers and crew aboard passed too closely to the island. A week later it is still unclear how many people died in this accident, fifteen fatalities have been confirmed with about forty people still missing.
Circumstances leading to the collision are still unclear, but the captain was on the bridge; his behavior fast became the focus of the media. Did he want to greet the islanders following an old tradition? Was he distracted by a “mystery woman” not on the passenger list but on the bridge and later appearing on television? Why did he leave the ship and not return after being ordered to do so by the coastguards? Why did he call the company office repeatedly but not declare the emergency to port authorities earlier? However his behavior may be explained, up until to this disaster he was a captain with a good reputation and twenty accident free years at sea.
It is good that news like of this accident was on the front pages of all major newspapers worldwide. Such accidents are, and always have been, very rare events. Of course, the “Costa Concordia” is a reminder of the sinking of the “Titanic” a hundred years ago. It is the first modern cruiser to fatally hit ground. The “Titanic” was the first big passenger ship lost due to an iceberg collision.
Both ships had in common that they were equipped with the most advanced technology of their time. Edward Tenner argues in “The Atlantic” that exactly this mixture of “state of the art” technology together with a confident and experienced professionalism can lead into problem situations. The “Costa Concordia” was equipped with the “Electronic Charts Display and Information System” which combines GPS with seabed sonar; however, the system is not perfect. The data of seabed obstacles can be out of date and the system generates so many false alarms that its alerts are often ignored. Seasoned professionalism can become a handicap because individuals trust on their experience and expertise until the moment it fails. As an example, racing car drivers are involved in more, rather than less traffic accidents than the normal motorist.
Feeling equipped with advanced technology or expertise individuals perceive a situation as “safe” and this feeling can increase the readiness to engage in higher risk behavior. The effect has been noted by economists and psychologists. In economy Sam Peltzman connected his name to this phenomenon already in the 70ties. In psychology the “Peltzman effect” was elaborated in the “risk compensation theory” forwarded by Gerald J S Wilde also now decades ago. He hypothesized that we have an individual “target level” of risk and measure the risk of a situation on our individual “risk thermostat”. If the perceived risk is higher than the target level we will act in a way to reduce the risk; however, if it is lower, we will behave more riskily. Due to this homoeostasis “the sum of the sins is constant” since the perceived safety of the situation will be compensated by more risky behavior. The theory is not easy to test empirically as one of its critics James Hedlund pointed out in a comprehensive review, but it is a phenomenon spread over a wide range of human behaviors that accidents tend to happen when and where they are least expected because the situation seems safe. To greet the Island of Giglio by passing so closely was a routine for ships of the Costa Line and certainly not regarded as a risk with a ship with “state of the art electronic equipment”.
This argument points to a second general causal factor found in many, if not most accidents, the human being. This greeting procedure is a typical expression of human sentimentality in general and in this case it is reported that the captain steered even closer so that a crew member could wave to his sister. This would not have happened with an automated ship; however, whilst automated airplanes, cars and trains are a kind of semi-reality, automated ships are still a vision. Airplanes, cars and trains have a human operator, but when problems arise, the electronics of the machine take over with capabilities and a reaction speed the human operator lacks. It is the radar led landing system which brings down the plane in heavy weather and electronics take over if drivers over-steer their cars or need to stop due to a sudden obstacle. These systems have been designed to overcome the limits of human information processing and to counter humans’ most significant weakness when it comes to work, reliability.
Human unreliability has many physical and mental sources. Abuse of substances like alcohol is one of the most feared but controllable causes of accidents in the work place. The captain of the “Concordia” was immediately tested for substances. The results are unknown, but some years ago the complete crew of an airplane was denied boarding because they were evidently drunk. Alcohol is not only a major problem in car travel but has also caused train and subway accidents. Nevertheless, despite this evidence and other human weaknesses, it is the captain or the driver of a transport system that gives people trust in the system. Driverless subway systems are a possible reality, but only realized on a very small scale and on short routes because passengers want a human driver who can prevent or help out in emergency situations. It is the hope that human flexibility will help out where the reliable automata fail. This guarantees pilots, captains and drivers their continued presence. Indeed, no automatic system would have landed a plane and rescued its passengers on the Hudson River as happened in 2011. Nevertheless, this rare accident and the captain’s heroic actions are a reminder of the need to optimize the relationship between humans and the technological systems they create.