The Challenge of Reporting Near-Miss Bus Operation Incidents

Posted on March 15, 2017 by Steve Mentzer - Also by this author

This picture of a mid-air “near miss” speaks for itself. An event such as this compels us to do whatever is necessary to prevent anything remotely similar from ever happening again.

The movement toward Safety Management Systems places an emphasis on self-reporting vehicle near-miss events. The analysis of such events helps to reveal those “precursors” that can lead to unwanted outcomes. Nobody questions the value of reviewing “near-miss” incidents; however, there are plenty of skeptics out there harboring doubts that bus operators will actually report themselves committing unsafe acts. Often, when the subject of self-reporting is being discussed, it is greeted by swells of suppressed laughter by those familiar with human nature.

The notion of voluntarily revealing our own deficiencies runs counter to how we are wired.

Let’s face it. We all have powerful tendencies toward self-preservation. Maslow’s Hierarchy identifies “esteem” as one of our primary needs. We never want to look bad in front of our peers. We want to be perceived as competent, top-performing professionals. So, the notion of voluntarily revealing our own deficiencies runs counter to how we are wired. In addition, we must find a way to overcome “self-bias,” which leads us to believe that others are generally less capable than we are, and therefore, more likely to be the real culprit when near-miss incidents happen to occur.

Near misses often go unreported for a number of additional reasons:

  • Fear of punishment.
  • Lack of awareness that a “near miss” actually occurred.
  • Judgment disparity.

Fear of punishment, being written up, or contributing to your own personal advancement to the next rung of the “progressive discipline ladder” is a strong deterrent. We all want our permanent record to reflect a sparkling record of on the job performance, especially when we know that, “deep down,” we show up each day and give our very best effort.

We also fail to recognize our mistakes, especially when they don’t generate harsh consequences.

Our roads have become so rife with chaos, that many times we simply aren’t aware just how close we came to getting in harm’s way. We also fail to recognize our mistakes, especially when they don’t generate harsh consequences.

Besides, self-reporting involves somewhat of a judgment call. It is difficult to get two people to agree on anything, let alone whether or not a collision nearly occurred when it didn’t actually happen.

Consequently, we may find it difficult to truly know what to report. Every now and then, we experience a close call that gets our attention, but after our pulse returns to normal we begin to justify our own actions and direct blame toward others, call it dumb luck, or may consider the whole thing to be an isolated event. Sometimes, we offer ourselves a pass and determine a simple mistake “is no big deal” because “I’m NEVER, EVER going to let it happen again.” Therefore, what’s the point of reporting it?

Ok, we may agree that reporting vehicle near misses is important and expecting folks to self-report might be, let’s shall we say — a bit on the optimistic side. So how can we gather that valuable near miss data if willing volunteers are reluctant to come forward?

Well, there are other means for identifying near misses:

  • Ride alongs
  • Safety blitzes
  • Customer testimonials
  • Call ins by other drivers
  • Video technology

Video technology is probably the most reliable way to capture near-miss events. The other collection methods listed above depend upon somebody being present to capture what transpired. As we know, there is no way to be everywhere at once, so folks across many industries have turned to technology to become their eyes and ears.

An exception-based video recorder designed to capture moments of risky driving behavior will help in gathering near-miss incidents. A captured event provides an objective vantage point for analysis and review that will likely reveal a host of contributing factors. This information can then be used to define corrective actions and mitigation strategies that will prevent a repeat of the undesired event.

Mitigation strategies that emerge from the root cause analysis of these videos are invaluable and highly impactful. They don’t exact costs typically associated with collisions (repairs, injury settlements, etc.), yet we still manage to gain the unique insights that come from understanding what actions, conditions, and behaviors may have combined to generate that specific near-miss event. This is highly valuable information that can be utilized to promote effective steps to prevent the near miss from becoming the next collision.

The impact is due to the fact that the video provides clear, objective evidence of what actually transpired during a “real life” situation — not some theoretical “could have” scenario we might dream up to convince an operator of the need to adopt the prescribed corrective action. The actual event is easier to accept than a theoretical discussion of what may happen when “A combines with B as it meets C.”

Videos often reveal that the near miss was caused by the actions of other drivers or pedestrians, or specific aspects of routes or operating procedures that may need to be tweaked to remove latent risks. Often, the video review will highlight the skills and proficiency of the professional operator.

The need for a recent route change was initially identified by bus operators that were struggling to conduct a left turn at an intersection plagued by spatial constraints. Unfortunately, operators lacked the means to submit their concerns in the form of a formal near-miss report, so they were never documented. Of course, these valid concerns went unheeded until a series of collisions occurred, prompting a closer look for the root cause of this emerging problem.

The combination of parked vehicles and cross-flowing traffic (encroaching or disregarding the stop line at the intersection) created a situation where it was physically impossible for a bus operator to complete the turn safely. A change was made to avoid this left turn in favor of a series of right turns. As a result, the collisions stopped happening. In retrospect, we can suggest that these collisions might have been avoided if the immediate concerns expressed by the operators had been documented and acted upon.

If you want to promote near-miss reporting, you have to have a process in place that ensures the issues are documented properly, so appropriate actions can be taken.

Ok, so what if we don’t have an exception-based video system? How can we capture and benefit from near-miss reporting? Well, you might consider the following:

Years ago, MTA New York City Transit equipped their training buses with trolley brakes that could be controlled by an instructor during new-hire training maneuvers. The brake allowed student operators to maintain responsibility for completing assigned tasks, which included making their own decisions, under the watchful eye of their instructor, who provided the oversight necessary to prevent any harm from occurring as a result of the student’s actions.

The trolley brake was used under agreement that — when applied — any further movement of the bus would have resulted in contact with another entity. This qualifies as a near miss, doesn’t it?

As soon as the brake was applied, a thorough review of the situation ensued. Students were encouraged (by the instructor) to explore alternatives and to define the proper corrective action that would prevent near misses in the future. The Instructor would confirm the desired response and training would resume.

What a great learning opportunity for new-hire candidates. Students were able to immediately address their “potential collisions” by considering how to improve their performance moving forward. Simply offering the students the corrective action — without having them engage in the process of analysis — would diminish the impact of the lesson. In this way, the instructor became a learning facilitator. The post-incident review enabled students to think through the situation and learn from their mistakes.

Finally, while it may prove challenging — every organization can encourage self-reporting by creating a safe environment that promotes trust and mutual respect. Once operators understand that they will not be punished for coming forward to report situations that merit further discussion and review, you will have opened a door to self-reporting that will remain open. Ultimately, the lessons that can be learned from reporting near misses — and sharing them across your entire operation — will serve the greater good of the transit authority. Evidence of such an environment will strengthen your safety culture and ensure the achievement of next-level safety performance.

Steve Mentzer is Enterprise Sales Director, Public Transit and Government Fleets, for Lytx.

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