The ‘pretext’ of human error

Nine out of 10 accidents, we are told, can be attributed to to human error, such as momentary distraction, fatigue, haste, drunkenness or irritation. But even if we take into account everyone who could possibly be to blame in the chain of events that lead to an accident – driver, engineer, air-traffic controller, pilot etc – this does not paint a comprehensive picture of human error. We must also consider the criminal tolerance of all kinds of oversights, cover-ups of erroneous decisions and irresponsibility. Considered from this point of view, then, yes, virtually all accidents can be attributed to human error. Of decisive significance are human reactions in crisis situations. On such occasions, we are bombarded with a mass of information only part of which are we capable of processing. Precisely the opposite happens when we are at ease and there is no great demand for heightened attention. Particularly in situations when one is engrossed in a certain activity, one does things automatically, falling into a state of mental passivity which reduces our ability to respond to the unexpected. Yes, it is true that lots of accidents are due to human error; but such error – however massive and tragic – is excusable because it is guileless. What is not excusable is the corruption, lack of accountability and lack of maintenance and inspections on both our roads and railway network (where more than 80 trains per year come off the rails). Clearly, we cannot always excuse human error as a pretext for accidents because then we will no longer be fighting the criminal omissions and transgressions that provoke accidents in the long run.