Crimes and accidents: the extent of responsibility

How bad can a car accident be?

On 28 February 2001 a vehicle came off the M62 motorway at Great Heck, near Selby, [North Yorkshire, England. Ed] ran down the railway embankment and onto the East Coast Main Line, where it was struck by a passenger train. The passenger train was derailed and then struck by a freight train travelling in the opposite direction. 6 passengers and 4 staff on the trains were killed. The driver of the vehicle was found guilty of causing the deaths of 10 people by dangerous driving.

So begins the report “Managing the accidental obstruction of the railway by road vehicles” from the UK Department for Transport (DfT).

If you were aware of this incident at the time, you might remember that it attracted considerable discussion and press coverage, here are  some examples.

At the time,  a variety of causes were cited for the accident and for the failure of various mechanisms to prevent the accident.

“Whose fault was it?”

Most of the discussion seemed to be based on trying to find someone to blame for everything that happened and the main target was the driver of the vehicle who was alleged to have been driving while unfit to drive due to lack of sleep, and to have fallen asleep at the wheel.

However, I thought that the public response to the incident was a matter of considerable concern; and I continue to think so.

Clearly people can expect to be held responsible for their actions. When their action or lack of action causes damage, they can expect to be held responsible for that damage. However, there are surely limits to that responsibility.

Also, it is interesting that this incident was described at the beginning of the DfT report which was otherwise entirely about ways of reducing incursion of road vehicles onto railways. So, if it is accepted that insufficient fences, banks, ditches or other obstructions had been provided, the implication is that the motorist could expect some protection to exist and is therefore not wholly responsible for the consequences of it not existing.

Level of responsibility

If, as alleged, the driver was unfit to drive then he can expect to be held responsible for his actions. But, in much of the discussion about this incident, there was very little importance attached to the issue that the probability was infinitesimally small that he would fall asleep at exactly the location which resulted in his vehicle entering a railway line, and at the time when not one but two trains were about to pass that point. I would hazard a guess that he could not have planned it so accurately if he had intended to cause the incident!

Having, by extremely bad lack, ended up on a railway line and before the railway collision occurred, he was aware of the danger of collision and was already using this mobile phone to attempt to warn the authorities of the situation. But even if he had been injured and unable to warn anyone, to what extent was he responsible for the full range of consequences of this extremely unlikely incident?

According to one of the press reports:

The HSE report described the accident as ‘wholly exceptional’ and concluded: ‘There was nothing the railway industry could reasonably have done to prevent the collisions.’

Chief Inspector of Railways Vic Coleman said: ‘It’s clear that the chain of events that led to this catastrophe were determined by sheer chance.’

The DfT report, and the fact that the work to generate it was instigated, suggests that the Department for Transport did not agree with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) that there ‘There was nothing the railway industry could reasonably have done to prevent the collisions.’

Distinguishing the criminal from the accident elements

How do we distinguish crimes from accidents? In particular, in complex incidents such as this, how do we distinguish the criminal elements from the accidental elements of an incident?

In my opinion, there is no benefit in penalising, or even reprimanding, people for actions which led to consequences which either they were completely unable to foresee or which were so improbable as to be bordering on fantasy. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to learn more about the consequences of one’s actions; this can be a positive process of extending one’s understanding, rather than a negative process of “not doing that again”.

In particular, in cases like the Selby incident, clearly someone should be penalised if it is determined that they were driving dangerously; but it seems to me that the severity of the penalty should be based on the severity of crime, which relates to the severity of the likely consequences of their actions and, presumably, whether this is a recurrence of this or other offences.

It also seems to me that the severity of crime is largely independent of the actual consequences of the incident. In other words, someone should expect to be penalised just as severely when there were no consequences as when there were.

I understand that many people would like to find someone to blame for all damage which occurs. But is this reasonable? There are, after all, such things as accidents!

Our blame culture

My view is not that held by the authorities, at least not in the UK. The sentencing guidelines of the Crown Prosecution Service in cases of dangerous driving take the view that the consequences are relevant.

As is probably apparent, I respectfully disagree. This blame culture does not, in my view, serve any purpose and may even reduce safety. Safety experts in the aviation industry seem to take a completely different view from that in the motoring world and reap the long term benefits of improved safety as a consequence.

You may take a different view!

By John Lewis

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