Failure To Learn?

“People Will Never Learn”

~Comment on Facebook

Social media. Two decades ago, the term literally did not exist. Now Grandma’s got 1,250 friends on Facebook. You can’t remember what you ate for dinner last night, but you can see what a high school classmate from the 60’s had at his favorite restaurant in Pismo Beach. Read where Tiger’s tee shot just landed…in France.

Aren’t we the lucky ones: so much information coming our way. Sometimes interesting, but seldom useful, let alone important.

Then, buried in a barrage of postings, between grandkids and editorial cartoons there’s this photo, from a friend of a friend.

Facebook Post

As to what went wrong, that was pretty simple: Driver A was texting. Driver B was not buckled in.  Driver B did not survive the collision. Sadly, things like that happen a lot these days, and when they do, the comment, “people will never learn” will surely follow.

As if the problem is “the failure to learn.” Rarely is that the case: if it were, things like this would be rare.

The root of the problem lies elsewhere, and for that, there often is a failure to learn – by those in charge.

Learning About Hazards


Hazards are the things that can hurt people. Everybody knows that. If something can hurt you, it is a hazard. If something can’t hurt you, it’s not a hazard.

If you like things complicated, I’m sorry to disappoint you. It really is that simple.

As to the things that can hurt you, there’s a very long list, and that’s what complicates matters. Don’t take my word for that: stop reading for a moment, look up from your computer, and scan the surroundings. In that seemingly safe space where you work, you can find plenty of things that are perfectly capable of hurting you.

Aka, hazards. As to what they are, training helps – if you don’t know what they are. But do you really need training to know if you rock back far enough in that chair you’re sitting in, you could fall backwards? And if you fall backwards, you could get hurt? No matter how old you are, you learned that a long time ago.

Age helps with knowing what the hazards are. The longer you live, the longer the list of things you have seen hurt people, including yourself.

So, what exactly is it that “people will never learn”?

To learn what that might be, let’s conduct a thought experiment using that tragic event pictured above. We know one driver was not buckled in – 10% of the US driving public isn’t – and did not survive. Let’s assume the texting driver – we do not have data as to the pervasiveness of that practice, but anecdotally I see it all the time – survived the collision.

Question 1: If the surviving driver were a rational and mature person – like you, for example – do you think that driver wishes the result had been the other way around?

Put yourself in the shoes of the survivor, and…….well, you don’t want to be that guy. But he or she gets to be. For the rest of their life. Lucky them.

Of course, they didn’t have to be that person. This was a choice, and with choices come consequences.

Question 2: On the matter of a passenger vehicle being operated on a roadway, do you think the drivers of each car knew a car was a hazard – something that could hurt them?

Duh. From the time they were kids, their parents told them things like, “Don’t play in the street” and “Look both ways before crossing the street.”  Besides, there are a lot of pictures of wrecked cars making the rounds…..on social media.

Question 3: Regarding the choice to text while driving, do you think the driver knew it was possible that by doing that, they might wind up hurt?

Shall we count the ways that might be learned: Laws. Billboards. TV news. Newspapers. Driver Education. Social media. MSP News.

This is all so obvious. Yes, there was a horrible failure here – but not a failure to learn about what can hurt you.

Restating the Problem


Despite what so many people say on the subject – from the experts who write the books to those of us who make comments on social media – this isn’t a learning problem. At least not about hazards. In academic terms, knowledge of a hazard is “necessary but not sufficient” to assure safety. So it doesn’t.

In practical terms, learning is not enough. Not nearly enough. It’s not what someone knows that keeps them safe; it’s what they do with that knowledge.

Surely, as you’re reading this edition of the news, that’s all so obvious. It is to me, too, as I read about all kinds of incidents and events, large and small, the world over. Rarely is lack of knowledge about a hazard the cause of the problem.

Not that it stops people – like leaders – from thinking that more learning about hazards is the solution. Reminds me of the quote, attributed to Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing, over and over, expecting a different result.”

So, let’s stop the nonsense. This isn’t a problem with learning; this is a problem about being certain. People do things like texting while driving and driving without buckling up because they are certain nothing bad will happen to them.

If they were sure that behavior would get them hurt – or hurt someone else – they would never text and always buckle up.

You don’t have to take my word on that: put it to the test. Imagine telling someone: “I’m going to make you drive blindfolded at sixty miles an hour, on a country road with oncoming traffic”, or, “You have to run your car into that tree at sixty miles an hour, but without buckling your seatbelt.”

They’d never do that. And they’d probably think you’re insane!

Taking A Risk


Certain. Likely. Probably. Never. Each of those everyday words are measures of probability. When it comes to safety – managing safety performance, sending everyone home alive and well at the end of every single day – probability is the best way to understand risk. Risk is simply a measure of probability. The odds, which can range from certain, likely, probably, seldom, rarely, to never.

Of course, it is entirely possible that you see the matter differently. That is a risk I take by defining risk that way. That simple way, I wish to remind all. In some places, risk is defined as the combination of probability and severity. That is part of the charm and challenge of talking about risk: it has so many different meanings. Starting with it being both a verb – “take a chance” – and a noun – “something that you insure against, like a flood or fire.”

So, if you’re in the camp of combining probability and severity into risk, you’re absolutely entitled to do exactly that. But that doesn’t change the fact that probability and severity are as different as apples and oranges. Combing apples and oranges creates a delicious fruit salad, which is always what that matrix – high/low, low/high, low/low…… looks like to me.

Besides, how do you predict what the severity of a hazard will actually be? Something as innocuous as a dropped tape measure has proven to be fatal. I have pictures to prove it.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking, “That’ll never happen.”

Don’t Fail to Learn This 


If there can be any possible good coming from a tragic story such as this one, it would be that something changes for the better. Frankly, thinking this is a failure to learn isn’t likely to change much of anything. If you want to change something that is a lot more likely to make a difference, work on changing the perception of risk.

Aka, probability.

If that texting driver had thought, “Looking at my smartphone instead of the road might just wind up getting me to run into an oncoming driver” and that unbuckled driver had thought, “It’s very possible there will be some idiot out there who thinks sending a text is more important than looking where he’s going, so I better buckle up and be prepared for the worst”  it’s highly likely that the result would have been entirely different.

That’s changing the perception of risk – and the likelihood of negative consequences. Which is how a good leader like you needs to “manage risk.”

It’s not that complicated.

Paul Balmert
October 2018

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