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Malcolm Gladwell on Transportation Safety

Looking at the history of car recalls, Gladwell recognizes a tension between the way engineers see malfunctions and how the public sees them. It's easy to blame the machine, but that doesn't always solve the problem.
May 15, 2015, 10am PDT | Philip Rojc | @PhilipRojc
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With news of this week's fatal Amtrak crash still fresh, perhaps it would be wise to keep this in mind: "To the engineer, a car sits somewhere on the gradient of acceptability. To the public, a car's status is binary: it is either broken or working, flawed or functional."

Gladwell's statement could apply equally to trains, planes, and automobiles. His piece in the New Yorker explores the roots of this engineer-public tension through the career of Denny Gioia, who worked in the recall department at Ford Motor Company. 

As point man during the 1970s Ford Pinto recall crisis, Gioia walked a tightrope between the sociological imperative to reduce deaths, and the engineer's knowledge that out of millions of cars, some will malfunction. 

Gladwell points out that driver error dwarfs mechanical failure as a cause of car accidents: "the variables that really matter have to do with the driver, not the car. The public approach to auto safety is preoccupied with what might go wrong mechanically with the vehicles we drive. But the chief factor is not what we drive; it is how we drive." 

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Published on Monday, May 4, 2015 in The New Yorker
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