Commuters could benefit from safer journeys on trains and planes following innovative research at Heriot-Watt which predicts when drivers are likely to make human errors resulting in accidents.
Researching driver and pilot behaviour
Using on-board monitoring and recording systems, known as €˜black boxes', Dr Guy Walker, lecturer in Human Factors and Transport with the University's Institute for Infrastructure and Environment, has identified trends in drivers' behaviour that, if ignored, could lead to serious accidents.
Dr Walker said, "Human factors, rather than technical faults, are now the main source of risk in rail and aviation travel. Drivers and pilots are only human, yet we're expecting them to perform in predictable ways and when we looked at data from black-box recorders we saw that they weren't.
"Black boxes are now recording every train and plane journey which means we have a mountain of data that we can detect subtle trends from. This tells us in advance where dangerous weaknesses might be present."
Using black box recorder data
All trains were recommended to have black box recorders fitted following the public inquiry into the Southall rail crash in 1997. That accident, caused by the driver ignoring warning signs and driving though a red signal, resulted in the deaths of seven people and 139 people injured.
Similarly, information recovered from a black box aboard the Air France Flight which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in June 2009, causing 228 deaths, found a combination of technical failure and mistakes made by the co-pilots on the flight were to blame for the crash.
Black boxes are now recording every train and plane journey which means we have a mountain of data that we can detect subtle trends from. This tells us in advance where dangerous weaknesses might be present."
Dr Walker likens these errors to the kind of every day mistakes made by the general public, such as pressing the wrong button on the TV remote or walking into a door that says pull instead of push.
He said, "Psychologically these are the same things but scaled up, that cause an Air France or a Southall crash. My research is about using data from the black box that detects in advance where these particular types of human factors problems are more likely to occur and how we can stop them before a major accident happens.
"For example, boring, routine journeys can be as tricky for drivers and pilots to cope with as unexpected emergencies, allowing bad habits to form and slowing down response times. Another example is automation. Is this a good thing? Sometimes it can rob drivers and pilots of the awareness they need to be able to respond to emergencies. This research means we can start to predict when these things might be more likely."
Air travel in the UK has witnessed significant and sustained growth in the past 30 years. Government statistics report that 211 million passengers passed through UK airports in 2010, representing a 100-fold increase since 1950 and a five-fold increase since the 1980's.
Recent figures from the Civil Aviation Authority show that whilst there were zero fatalities associated with UK passenger flights between 2000 and 2009, there were 179 serious incidents. During the same time period, there were 49,000 occurrences which relates to accidents, serious incidents and other incidents. This represents a 20 per cent increase over a 10 year period.