A tragic accident involving a Volvo bus happened on the Bangalore – Hyderabad highway today. 44 passengers are feared killed. The bus driver, the helper and five passengers managed to escape death.
So, how did this accident happen? Since morning, we have heard multiple narratives of the accident across different media channels. Initially, it seemed like the bus hit an Oil tanker that resulted in the bus catching fire. Later, a channel reported the bus driver’s statement that the primary cause was a tyre bust which resulted in the bus skidding onto the side of the road.
After a few hours most channels reached a consistent narrative. The bus was being driven at high speeds and while overtaking another car it hit a culvert that impacted the fuel tank. The fuel tank burst into flames which soon swept over the entire bus.
Was the press irresponsible or misleading? Or is there are a larger issue at play?
As humans, we have a high degree of curiosity. We want to know why and how the accident happened when in the immediate term we should be worried about rescue and relief. This curiosity means, we are always searching for a story that makes sense, one thats logical and mostly, one that is a good story. This pushes us towards a narrative which is a significant problem with most investigations. People look for a narrative first rather than going about it objectively and this narrative kills objectivity and truth.
Once people get into a story telling mode, their reporting is influenced by a number of biases. The narratives also tend to be swayed by the stories mentioned by others around. The driver’s themselves tend to explain traffic accidents by reporting circumstances of lowest culpability with credibility (Baker’s Law). In addition, our own interpretation adds another layer of subjectivity. Remember Chinese Whispers?
Using a scientific approach to investigations can help us overcome this issue of subjectivity and reach an accurate diagnosis of the incident. Paul Meehl, an American psychology professor, in his 1954 book “Clinical vs. Statistical Prediction: A Theoretical Analysis and a Review of the Evidence” argued that mechanical methods of data combinations can make more efficient decisions about patients’ prognosis and treatment as compared to clinical or subjective methods. These mechanical methods can use a combination of data, checklists and even clinical judgments to predict the outcome.
The idea is to move from a pure intuition based judgement towards a more objective and systematic way of diagnosing the incident. The system needs to ensure that we come to the narrative at the end of accident investigation rather than lead it. In one of our recent work on Road Safety, we have worked on designing an accident investigation system that avoids bias reporting. The new process captures all the accident elements objectively before arriving to the final prognosis. This system is now being used for future investigations.
We know that media’s job may not be to conduct accident investigations. However, they can also follow simple rules such as not releasing driver’s version immediately and avoid such varied narratives of the same tale.
The key issue is that if we get lost in the narrative and end up drawing wrong inferences, we will be learning wrong things and addressing wrong problems.
Image Source: Here