Speech to Opening Symposium of the
National Transportation Week
Mr. Benoît Bouchard
Montreal, June 1st, 2001
Ladies and Gentlemen, Mesdames et Messieurs - Good afternoon
It is a great pleasure and honour for me to have been invited as the closing speaker of today's symposium. The annual celebration of national transportation week is a tremendous opportunity to reflect on the critical importance of the transportation industry to the well-being of Canada and Canadians and to look towards the future. There could be no more appropriate way to kick off the week than to have such an event as this symposium. And there could be no better theme than that of technology and safety in the industry.
Let me begin then by offering my sincere congratulations to the organizers of today's event and to all those who have played a part in making it such a success. I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to listen to the viewpoints of our speakers here today and to meet and speak with many of you. Indeed, another wonderful opportunity to continue the dialogue will take place this evening and so I will keep my remarks brief in order that we can all prepare in leisure for what promises to be a wonderful event.
For reasons that are obvious, I have more than a passing interest in the transportation industry in Canada, and in the safety of its performance and practices. My first level of interest comes simply from being a Canadian citizen. In this vast land of ours, where reliable, safe transportation is such a major factor in our daily lives, Canadians are tremendously reliant upon an effective, efficient and affordable transportation system. We do have a tendency to take it for granted, but it is a key contributor to the very high quality of life that we enjoy. And when we leave our homes to travel, either on business or for pleasure, we expect to be able to do so in comfort and in safety. These are elements of our lives that we do not necessarily think much about ... we simply expect our transportation system, in all of its elements, to be excellent in all respects.
As Minister of State for transport and then again as Minister, I naturally began to see transportation from a different perspective. I became more acutely aware of the complexity of this industry, of its strengths and weaknesses, and of the pressures with which it must contend on an ongoing basis. At that time, and I know it is no less so nowadays, we were dealing with many complex issues, many of which involved new and evolving technologies and many of which involved very large sums of money. (Make an aside on CAATS which, a decade later, has now passed its initial testing and is being incorporated into a revamped air traffic control system.) We were being challenged as well to evolve our attitudes with respect to safety as we moved into these new technologies and tried to understand what the new relationships would be between new, highly automated systems and the human beings who still had the ultimate responsibility to ensure success and safety.
And now, as Chairman of the Transportation Safety Board, I see our industry through yet another pair of glasses. (I should point out that when I say that, I mean it in both the figurative and the literal senses.) Knowing what Canadians expect; knowing the complexity of the transportation industry and its legislative framework; and now focussing on those events where something or many things have gone wrong, sometimes with disastrous results, affords me a number of unique perspectives. I would like to share a couple of them with you this afternoon in the hopes they will provoke some thought and contribute to the overall value of this day to each and every one of you.
Let's begin with technology. Although it is intended to, and often does, improve our lives in ways that would have been unimaginable to most of us 40 or even 20 years ago, technology also complicates our lives considerably. It moves forward quickly, beckoning us to move with it, normally with promises of economies or efficiencies. But rarely does it make solid guarantees, other than it will cost money ... and sometimes significant amounts of money in procurement, installation, replacement costs, training, maintenance, etc. Many are sceptical of the real savings or efficiencies that technology offers. Others are concerned that new technology will inevitably result in the loss of essential basic skills, ultimately with unwanted, perhaps dire, results. And still, the tremendous advantages of technology in general are there for all of us to see. Be it in communications, navigation, remote sensing, or a myriad of other areas, technology lives up to its commitment on a daily basis.
Naturally, there are difficult judgements to make with respect to how technology will be incorporated, and the decisions are made in many ways, sometimes beneficially and sometimes in a questionable fashion. Let me give you an example of a well-known technology, a relatively new technology, with its obvious and significant benefits that are being put to increased use. But, unfortunately, our experience shows it is being misused as well. I am speaking of the global positioning system means of navigation and tracking, or GPS as we commonly refer to it. This incredible technology is available to us as individuals or for industry applications at relatively low cost, and its use is becoming more widespread daily. In aviation, the advent of GPS has opened the door to a new era of navigation, allowing accuracies in positioning and flexibility in routing that would not have been imagined 30 years ago. Without any doubt, technology in this application has achieved all those benefits that "techies" brag about. And yet, so rapidly has the confidence in this technology risen that now, in some cases, its power is being misapplied by a few who lack the patience to ensure that new technologies are introduced and implemented in a measured and safe fashion. Transportation Safety Board investigations have recently provided two confirmed cases and substantial anecdotal indications of aircrew creating and employing "home-made" instrument approaches, normally to small or isolated airfields, before such approaches have been properly developed and tested by the appropriate authority. This is clearly a case of going too far, too fast with a new technology.
On the other hand, I see cases of individuals or organizations who, for one reason or another, are clearly not obtaining the advantages that technology could bring to their operations. Their reasons normally can be summed up in either a preference for traditional methodologies or an unwillingness to invest the money required to make the changes. I will acknowledge that in certain instances there is a legitimate case for being unable financially to make the transition, but I also believe that, in most cases, the cost element is used as a convenient excuse for simply not making the right move at the right time.
And so, the uncertainties of cost-benefit analyses aside, the dilemma for us all, but for the transportation industry in particular, boils down to two issues:
- the first is how to adopt what is already out there to improve operations and to improve safety; and
- the second is how to adapt to changes that are coming so that we won't have to learn any of the lessons the hard way.
These are decisions that each of us makes in our own lives on a frequent basis. These are also decisions that Canadians expect each of us in the transportation industry to make on their behalf on an ongoing basis.
Let me now say a few words on the safety portion of the balance. I have already referred to safety issues in discussing the technology dimension because it is all but impossible nowadays to talk about one without mentioning the other.
For all of its potential advantages, technology comes equipped with one very large pitfall ... that being a tendency to be lulled into a false sense of security by the technology itself. Time and again we are presented with compelling evidence that the human link in the safety chain can become weaker if too much reliance is placed upon new technology. This reliance has a tendency to become even stronger as our knowledge and skills in digital technologies improve, resulting in fewer equipment errors and greater average times between failures. Basic skills and the intuition that springs from experience are critical factors in the safety of any operation and, although they will naturally evolve with technological changes, they must be developed and nurtured as much now as in the past. Let me say that another way ... modifying human behaviour to ensure it works appropriately with new technology is every bit as important as the new technology itself. That may seem obvious ... that it goes without saying. However, as I review accident files from Canada and elsewhere around the world, it is painfully apparent that the human/technology interface is frequently the weak link.
In preparing this presentation, I attempted to find a consolidated estimate for the costs of incidents and accidents within the Canadian transportation industry on an annual basis. I was unable to find any one source, but even without numbers, we can all imagine that those costs would be extremely high. Some, like the costs of broken equipment or damaged infrastructure, are relatively easy to quantify. But others, such as the costs resulting from permanent or temporary losses of our people resources are much harder to quantify because rarely do our accounting methodologies capture the full costs and implications of such losses. Even more obscure are the costs to an organization that does not give adequate thought to the safety of its operations and the well-being of its employees. In today's labour market, where skills are hard to find and those who do possess them are much more mobile, no employer can afford to overlook the positive impact a strong orientation towards their employees can have on retention and performance. Here I am not just talking about compensation packages; I am referring as well to the extent to which employers care about their people in other ways, including their physical well-being.
The speed and complexity of today's industry, often made more so by new technologies, has outstripped our traditional methods of control. I grew up in a largely rule-based environment because, although it didn't seem so to me at the time, life was relatively uncomplicated and rules could be made for most options. That being said, you can never legislate for stupidity, and I am sure we can all agree that trying to operate only on a rule set simply doesn't work. It takes more than that. The digital or information age has changed that. We are all confronted with much more information and many more choices than we ever were before. Rules simply can't cover all of the permutations and combinations. In fact, strict rule sets only limit the potential offered to us by technology and by the individuals who know how to optimize its benefits. And so we find another dilemma in the technology/safety balance.
How do we harness the true potential of new technology and the people who work with it while ensuring the appropriate framework for safety? Well, this could be the subject for an entire symposium in itself. But, from my perspective, the important element remains ... focus on the human being. This is not a natural tendency ... my observations have shown that the focus tends to be on the technology itself ... which technology, at what cost, by when ... rather than on the people who ultimately will have to use it ... the people upon whom we rely to ensure the benefits of the technology are realized and its promises are met in a thoroughly safe fashion. From my perspective as Chairman of the Transportation Safety Board, judgement is a critical factor in safe operations, and when things go wrong, the judgement of the person in the loop will largely determine the outcomes. Although we may get there someday, we are not yet at the point where inanimate objects can be programmed with judgement ... human beings still have a corner on that market.
And so I will conclude. Technology and the ability to use it wisely are becoming increasingly critical to the transportation industry. Without it, we simply will not be competitive and will certainly not be able to live up to the expectations of Canadians and others who do business with us or come to visit our country. How we adopt what is already here and adapt to that which is coming our way will define our position in a competitive and increasingly globalized marketplace. It is, nevertheless, people who will have to make all of this work and who, ultimately, will determine if we can realize the true potential of technological advances and do that safely. Let us ensure that, as an industry and as a country, we maintain the appropriate balance in investment between technology and the person.
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