Near Misses

I recently had the opportunity to visit Guangzhou (Canton) in the People’s Republic of China. Since this isn’t a travel blog I won’t bore you with the usual references to exotic sites and fascinating people. Among the many lasting impressions I will keep is a set of circumstances that are seared into my mind. Near death experiences have a way of doing that.

I’ve experienced countless unsafe modes of transport including Tuk-Tuks in Bangkok, dirt bikes in West Texas, illegal taxis in central Mexico, parachutes in San Diego, and elephants in Chang Mai.  However, taxi rides in Guangzhou had the special distinction of bringing me face-to-face with death. As a matter of course, a Cantonese taxi ride involves prolonged periods where the car straddles the lane line. No doubt, in the driver’s mind this increases their options. At any instant they can switch lanes because, after all, they’re already partially in the other lane already. As a result, a taxi ride is frequently an exercise in attacking and defending. Sort of like a perverse fencing match with potentially similar results.

Near misses, in this setting, are extremely common. You would think that after one or two near misses the driver would learn to be a bit more cautious. However, we humans have a unique and amazing ability. We can rationalize and explain away these experiences so that we are more comfortable when we repeat them. This may sound trite and even whiny. However, in any safety sensitive business this is extremely troublesome.  In fact, two Georgetown University researchers (Dillon-Merrill & Tinsley) have shown that people who escape near-misses are even more likely to repeat the risky behavior.  Unfortunately for many of us, surviving a near miss teaches us how good we are at surviving rather than how close we’ve come to disaster.  Each time we miss we become a little more confident and a little less cautious.

There is a reason the FAA defines a near miss as an event where two planes come within a mile of each other.  Pilots are required to report these near misses. Were it not for this rule (verified by radar), most professional pilots (like some professional bus drivers) would be too self-confident to report it. More significantly they would be unlikely to change any of their behaviors or procedures. That is, of course, until the near miss isn’t a miss at all.

NOTE: Peggy and Pete will be taking a break for a couple of weeks. We’ll be back early next year to share, discuss, ponder, and laugh in our usual manner. In the wake of the Newtown tragedy we will be keeping our friends and families just a little bit closer during this holiday season. We encourage you to do the same.

Posted on December 21, 2012, in Modern Life and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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