Saturday, August 04, 2007

Next: Disaster

In the wake of last week’s bridge collapse in downtown Minneapolis, state officials across the U.S. have been rushing to inspect their own bridges—especially those 700-plus spans that are similar in design to that of the I-35W crossing. One bridge in Missouri has already been closed indefinitely, and others are sure to follow.

This bridge collapse and subsequent response brings to mind the saying: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I don’t want to be too critical, because in the U.S. major engineering-related disasters are rare. Let’s give our engineers and safety monitors credit where credit is due.

But let’s face it, the U.S. is becoming increasingly reactive (as opposed to proactive) when it comes to preventing and mitigating disasters. Pre-Katrina our government was well aware of what might happen to New Orleans in the wake of a major hurricane. And we’ve all been hearing for several years how the infrastructure in the U.S. is crumbling, yet we aren’t doing nearly enough to replace and repair our aging buildings, roads and bridges. I’m certain that the engineering community saw a major bridge collapse coming—that we were “overdue,” so to speak. Yet, it always takes a high-profile disaster before we begin to seriously address such problems—and sometimes even that isn’t enough.

All of this might leave you wondering what the next major U.S. transportation disaster is going to be. As someone who studies failure on an everyday basis I can take a pretty good guess:

Right now, the big fear among aviation safety experts is that two commercial airliners are going to collide on the ground at a major U.S. airport, most likely while one plane is taxiing and the other is taking off or landing. The accident is expected to occur at a busy hub where planes frequently taxi across runways, and/or at an airport that handles a lot of international flights (where communications between pilots and controllers may be hindered somewhat by a language barrier).

“Close calls” are occurring all the time, and an accident such as this is likely to happen sooner rather than later. But badly-needed safety measures aren’t likely to be implemented until after we experience an accident akin to the one that occurred at Tenerife, Canary Islands on March 27, 1977, where PanAm and KLM 747’s collided on the ground, killing 583 people.

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