The problem: Over time, each mode has developed its own taxonomy for describing the circumstances surrounding accidents. In fact, much of the focus has been on defining "causes" of accidents and developing "causal" data. However, determining the cause of an accident involves a subjective judgment, and often leads to a statement such as "operator error"which by itself does not provide information on the underlying causes of accidents so they can be analyzed and measures can be taken to prevent them. Perhaps more important is a description of the chain of events and the operating environment, including characteristics of the operator, the vehicle, the weather, and the system. But there is no consistency in collecting such data across modes. This inconsistency inhibits the sharing of information (such as in the area of human factors or the effects of weather), and fails to take advantage of advances in different modes. Event recorders, for example, are used in aviation extensively, but are not widely used in other modes. Extending the use of event recorders is one of the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) top 10 most wanted safety improvements in transportation.
A related issue will be how to protect confidentiality for those who provide data.
What we need: We should be taking advantage of technology like event recorders, and we should be taking advantage of research on classifying accident circumstances. We need data which will help identify the causal chain for individual accident investigations, and which will be useful also in analyzing data statistically across a wide variety of accidents-even in different modes.
First, we will need to identify and evaluate the range of taxonomies across modes (and look at failure mechanisms in other areas like occupational safety, nuclear safety, and such, for ideas). We also need to evaluate the range of technologies already available. Then we will need to develop a common framework for thinking about transportation accidents and explore implementation issues.
Benefits: Common data on accident circumstances would allow easy sharing of research findings, and could improve most modes' data and understanding of accidents. Expanded use of event recording technology, in particular, could provide a wealth of data to help isolate important factors that could be addressed through targeted government or private sector intervention. We could expect greater visibility of accident circumstances, and thus more cost effective actions to prevent or mitigate accidents.