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Fasten Your Seatbelt

Yisrael Rutman

All the technology in the world can’t seem to make life perfectly safe. Can anything be done to prevent at least some accidents? Yes and no…

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

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mtrak Jumps the Track

In December, an Amtrak train in Washington State went off the tracks, killing three people and injuring about 100 others. The cause of the accident is still a mystery. The main questions: Why was the train — on its first run — going 80 mph in a 30-mph zone? Why wasn’t Positive Train Control (PTC), a system that automatically slows trains going too fast, not installed on that stretch of track?

Why it was traveling over the speed limit is not known. But we have a pretty good idea about why it didn’t have PTC to slow it down when it did: It’s the fault of Congress, which approved PTC but “didn’t give any money for it,” according to Allan Zarembski, director of the Railroad Engineering and Safety Program at the University of Delaware.

It also seems the tight curve where the train derailed was supposed to be straightened to allow high speed without hazard. But since it would cost $412 million to rebuild it, they decided to lower the speed limit to 30 mph instead.

One thing to keep in mind about such accidents: they’re big news but rare. In Amtrak’s case, from 2006 to 2014, only five people were killed in train accidents. In an average year, there are only seven passenger fatalities on US trains overall. Or, 0.43 per billion passenger miles. That’s a lot safer than cars, where the risks are 17 times higher.

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board assigned a team of 20 investigators to find the cause and recommend preventions.

The Titanic

The sinking of the Titanic is probably the most famous accident in history. The passenger liner — which its builders claimed was “unsinkable” — sank on its very first voyage, on April 15, 1912, after hitting an iceberg. Many people died that night in the North Atlantic Ocean off the Newfoundland coast.

The ship was thought to be unsinkable because of the watertight design of its bulkheads, the walls of the ship. The builders had thought of everything. Except that the walls weren’t fully waterproof. Another thing they didn’t think of was lifeboats. There weren’t enough of them. Only 16, which could hold 1,178 people. That night, over 3,000 people were on board.

Although ocean liner companies today are careful not to boast about their vessels being “unsinkable” (it still happens but very rarely), lessons were learned from the Titanic. Today’s ships are made to be really watertight; and they carry lots more lifeboats.

There’s also a much more sophisticated system for locating icebergs. The US Coast Guard’s International Ice Patrol (IIP) uses planes equipped with special radar, and satellite observations are plugged in too.

The system has been a great success. Over almost 100 years, not a single ship using the IIP has struck an iceberg. (Excerpted from Mishpacha Jr., Issue 694)

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