Cock-ups, car ferries, and carrots: why we continue to get it wrong

On a warm summer’s evening in 2014, the WightLink car ferry St Helen had arrived at its Isle of Wight terminal to discharge its penultimate cargo of the day. Just after the heavy trucks rolled off, the crew started to lower its movable mezzanine deck containing a small group of parked cars. Suddenly one of the thick wire ropes which held the deck in place parted, and the deck, a crewman stood on the deck, the vehicles and their passengers plunged about two metres until the movable deck hit the main deck below.

Thankfully on this occasion such a catastrophic failure resulted in just a few minor injuries. Had other vehicles with occupants been underneath, there could have been multiple deaths.

Such accidents are unfortunately far too common. When investigated by the experts of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch, the UK maritime equivalent of air accident investigators, the ultimate cause was the common chain of a company which “demonstrated little or no appetite” to spend the funds necessary to resolve such a long-standing issue, an inspection and oversight system which failed to do anything meaningful about the problems which it identified, and government departmental supervision which was also failed to act to prevent such a failure occurring.

Their full report is here.

This, and many other accidents and catastrophes including the banking crisis of a few years ago, are often used as examples of failure of self-regulation, as rallying cries for the campaign to re-introduce central (usually state) regulation.

This particular incident is valuable in demonstrating that potential benefits in that change are illusory: even under the current hands-off regime, the government overseer was fully aware of the problem and its attendant risks, but did nothing. Swapping one arrangement for another which is equally ineffective would bring no improvement.

However we regulate safety, financial, and other matters, what is important is that whoever is responsible for their various components is diligent and effective. Self-regulation fails so often because companies, even government departments, see that they can get away with cutting care and costs. There is no incentive to do things adequately, let alone well. There are penalties if that results in accidents, but the chances of them happening are generally low, the gamble is calculated, and in any case those currently involved will probably have made their money or careers and moved on before any stick is wielded.

Centralised and government agencies trying to regulate these matters have often been worse, because the regulators become disenchanted, disengaged, and disinterested. They are also prone to corruption, and – as the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal has shown – are easily hoodwinked or bypassed.

In any case, trying to get anything achieved by means of penalties alone is unlikely to work. People respond best when they have the choice of both incentives and penalties.

Most vehicle drivers in the UK regularly break speed limits because they know that they are most unlikely to get a speeding ticket. If – setting aside matters of privacy and practicality of implementation – those whose vehicles recorded that they broke limits for less than 5% of their mileage, for example, were rewarded by reductions in vehicle or fuel taxation, you can be sure that far fewer would break speed limits.

If companies and other organisations find good safety management and practices financially unappealing, then offering them the incentive of reduced corporate taxation might give them a good reason to be more diligent.

For the moment, financial incentives are the most promising approach because immediate material reward seems to be the most effective means of motivation. In decades past, many people had a deep-seated fear that, if they did not do ‘good’, then they could spend eternity burning in hell. With the general decline in religious belief, promising an employee a place in heaven means little. Now even teachers tell our children that the reason to get the best education is to get the best qualifications, so that you can get the most highly-paid jobs.

It is also very odd that we have had to put in place legislation to protect whistleblowers from being victimised by companies or organisations which actually have a legal and moral responsibility to encourage their employees, and the public, to voice their concerns.

This all assumes that government, its departments, and companies do have some interest in driving down accident rates. For the moment, I am not sure that anyone has any appetite to improve, as there just aren’t any incentives to do so.