Re: [SystemSafety] New Yorker article...

From: Matthew Squair < >
Date: Thu, 30 Jul 2015 11:24:06 +1000

One thing I took away from the article was that there is a version of the ‘prosecutor’s fallacy’ at work here. After the Pinto case hit the headlines it was obvious to everyone that this issue should have been dealt with but at the time it was just one more case to deal with in a department with a heavy case load. The question is not how risky the fuel tank issue was on it’s own but where it sat relative to other issues the engineers needed to deal with on the day, time being a limited resource.

BTW John the US FRA (I think) did a study on ‘un-commanded accelerations' their conclusion that (leaving aside dash mats) the root cause was that smaller European and Japanese cars had the pedals closer together than US manufactured cars, apple unfamiliar with this would from time to time hit the edge of the other pedal. Thing to remember is that these are very weak performance shaping factors so it needs a lot of users and a lot of trips before you get even a few events.

On 30 Jul 2015, at 9:26 am, Drew Rae <d.rae_at_xxxxxx

Thanks for sharing the article John. I'm inclined to agree with the way the article discusses the Pinto case specifically, but I find it ironic that the journalist has a much more deterministic view of engineering than the engineer does. It's very clear that "traceable cause" for Gioia is not mathematical or logical concept, but a social construct - a "pattern" that will create consensus for a recall. There is even an explicit social test "which ones would pass muster with the executives upstairs".

I don't think there is anything wrong with safety being based on social agreement. The problem is when people think that there is some formula or algorithm that can tell you when something is safe. It is even worse when the people operating the algorithms are totally unconscious of the amount of individual judgement and group consensus-building that is involved.

An example from the article: "Engineers have a grievance. They think we should think more like them. They are not wrong." This followed a passage about allegedly disproportionate allocation of resources to fixing technical risks than controlling driver behaviour through regulation and enforcement. Not only does this misrepresent the engineering mindset (since when has a hierarchy of controls suggested putting "tell the user not to act dangerously" ahead of "improve the design"?) but it falsely suggests that it is somehow more rational to treat risks of equal sizes equally.

Why? It would be very nice engineering-wise if we could. Within the limits of uncertainty we could treat the design of society as a risk-minimisation problem. What would be irrational would be to ignore the fact that people don't have consistent risk preferences. Choosing which parts of travel to regulate, and how to regulate them, is not an engineering problem. Like it or not, the placement of a fuel tank is a more compelling and culpable explanation for a death than the reaction time of the other driver. There's no "rational" basis for this, but there's no "rational" basis to object to it either.

Where I think the Pinto case is interesting is that there was nothing that was non-normative about Ford's decision making, or even about the design of the Pinto, within the automobile industry. There was a big gap between those norms and what was expected in hindsight by the US public. Discovering and reacting to that gap led to an automobile safety advocacy movement that arguably pushed car standards and features beyond what the US would have otherwise been comfortable with. (This is a country that still has a vocal minority objecting to mandatory seat-belt wearing).

On 30/07/2015, at 7:13 AM, John Downer wrote:

I don’t disagree. (Especially given that anyone pressing the accelerator instead of the brake probably isn’t a driving prodigy to begin with.)

I think the wider points of the article still stand though. (That we have a tendency to think about accidents emotionally rather than in terms of numbers. / That there is a sort of ‘engineering mindset’. / etc.)

Mostly I just thought it was interesting to see the Pinto story told from Ford’s perspective.

Dr. John Downer
Global Insecurities Centre.
School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS). University of Bristol (UK)

On Jul 29, 2015, at 4:47 PM, Mike Ellims <michael.ellims_at_xxxxxx

There is one obvious flaw in the argument presented, it is stated that; “Cars are engineered to be tolerant of pedal error: the driver who depresses the accelerator, thinking it’s the brake, still has the option of simply putting the car in neutral or turning it off. (That’s one of the reasons that cars have gearshifts and ignition switches.)”

Which is true but irrelevant. For the average person stopping a car by putting it into neutral or by turning the ignition off isn’t part of their normal experience nor part of any planned or practiced set of responses to emergencies (if there are any). Therefore the vast majority of people (90%)( won’t be able to cognate a solution involving either response in an emergency thus for the typical person neither is actually a viable option.

If I remember correctly after the Lexus crash involving a CHiP officer Toyota did an internal survey and found that 30% of their own employees had no idea what neutral was. The engineering mistake here is assuming that the ordinary driver has the same internal model of how a car works as the engineer, which is incorrect. For the average driver the options available are usually limited to steer or brake.


*From:* systemsafety-bounces_at_xxxxxx mailto:systemsafety-bounces_at_xxxxxx <systemsafety-bounces_at_xxxxxx Downer
*Sent:* 29 July 2015 19:25
*To:* systemsafety_at_xxxxxx *Subject:* [SystemSafety] New Yorker article...

I haven’t been keeping up with list discussions as religiously as I should, so I apologize if someone has posted this before, but I came across this article and it struck me as something that people might appreciate:

It’s about the star-crossed Pinto, and made me think about it a little differently than I had.

(If you find yourself on the wrong side of a paywall, just google the title and it should send you through.)


Dr. John Downer
Global Insecurities Centre.
School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS). University of Bristol (UK)

<avast-mail-stamp.png> <>

This email has been checked for viruses by Avast antivirus software. <>

The System Safety Mailing List

The System Safety Mailing List

The System Safety Mailing List
systemsafety_at_xxxxxx Received on Thu Jul 30 2015 - 03:24:18 CEST

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.3.0 : Tue Jun 04 2019 - 21:17:07 CEST