Saturday, September 19, 2015

When Normal Perception Leads to Deadly Tragedy

Two years ago yesterday, an Ottawa commuter bus collided with a passenger train at a level crossing in the western suburb of Barrhaven

Woodroffe Drive and Fallowfield Road, Ottawa, Sept. 13, 2013.
Terry Pedwell, Canadian Press.

The death-toll was perhaps mercifully low: only six fatalities, including the bus-driver.  The Ottawa Citizen reported recently, however, on the post-traumatic stress suffered by at least one victim.

This incident stuck in my head for a number of diverse reasons: not excluding the massive publicity it received, I was at the time exclusively a transit-user, not owning an automobile; also, a colleague of mine back then had years earlier been the boss of the driver of the crashed bus; seeing his photograph in the newspaper, I remembered that I had encountered at the workplace him as well. 

What jogged my memory was the bus-driver’s last name: “Woodard”, which I misspelled when searching for his name on the customer database, as the far more common “Woodward.” 

Not finding him under that name, the man advised me of the correct spelling, and there he was in the system. At least, this is how I recall it, but perhaps it didn’t happen that way at all. 

Also, September 18 is the anniversary of the death of Jimi Hendrix in 1970, and as chance would have it, on the day before the second year after the bus accident, I had business on the phone with a gentleman from Arizona who was also named “Woodard.” 

In a previous conversation with this American man, he told me that in his organization there is a colleague whose name is very similar to his, except that his surname is “Woodward.” 

As tragic as the accident was, my intent is not to write an elegy, but a meditation on some mysteries of its circumstance. 

Bus crash victims.  Driver Dave Woodard, bottom left.

For though the driver had a clean driving record, nevertheless Dave Woodard apparently ignored warning signs and flashes at the level-crossing that a train was approaching. 

Passengers saw the train coming, however, and shouted for him to stop, which the bus-driver did not do until just seconds before impact. All the deceased were from the bus, however. 

But how, if the passengers saw the train, did the driver fail to notice it? 

It had been Woodard’s wedding-anniversary the day prior, and there was speculation that the aftereffects of too much alcohol in celebration, contributed to an impairment of function. 

But a preliminary report revealed no drugs or alcohol were in his system. This same document pointed to a security-video monitor located above the windshield as a cause of driver-distraction. 

However, in the days after the accident, news reports emerged as to how transit-drivers on that bus route — including the operator involved in the accident — had been ignoring lights warning of an oncoming train at that crossing, and proceeding as normal. This included at least one such incident — following the accident itself

It does seem foolhardy, especially for a motorist responsible not only for his own life, but that of dozens of others as well. Yet, there was evidently a large gap in time between when the warning lights began, and a train passed by. 

For a bus-driver, though, waiting for the train to pass was the difference between remaining on schedule, and being late — with comparatively minor consequences in regard to upset passengers, unhappy superiors, and tardiness in leaving work, when compared to the risk of death and injury that would result from a bus being struck by an oncoming train. 

Tragic aftermath of inattention.
Image: CTV News.

Yet, from the behaviour typical of the drivers, this risk was comparatively small, even when (as in the one incident subsequent to the collision) the result could have resulted in numerous casualties. 

Far from any impairment caused by alcohol or lack of sleep, the bus driver’s perceptual faculties were behaving just as they should. It goes back to previous musings as to how the incredible or unthinkable — the Holocaust, World War II, the moonshot, the destruction of the World Trade towers — become banal after not so long a time. 

This is how the mind is able to adjust to radical shifts in circumstance: the extraordinary becomes, after not so long a time, the new normal, fading from the centre to the background of attention as the psyche contends with the quotidian substance or details of the environment. 

Sometimes this doesn’t happen, of course: shock and stress disorders result precisely from the inability of the mind to adapt to drastically changed circumstance. 

However, in most cases things and situations which are highly stimulating, whether affirmatively or not, are reduced to psychological noise: thus, funerary-workers are, after a time, no longer disgusted by the sight of dead bodies, just as strip-club bouncers quickly lose arousal at the sight of naked flesh. 

Relatedly, for most drivers, the sight of flashing lights at a level-crossing provokes a reflex to slow down and stop the vehicle. Apparently, for drivers on the Barrhaven route, red flashing lights no longer registered at a subliminal the onset of a deadly hazard — a train. For the bus operator and five others that fateful day, it was a tragic lesson in the psychology of perception.

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