Address issues before they start
Accidents can happen at any time. The problem is that many of them in Korea are caused by preventable human errors. What became known as Heinrich’s Law, taken after a laborious study by industrial safety expert Herbert Heinrich, states that behind every accident that cause major casualties, there are 29 accidents that have minor consequences and about 300 that end with no injuries.
Addressing the causes of commonplace accidents and fixing them, therefore, is the best way to prevent major accidents.
The latest collision at Sangwangshimni Station in Seoul happened because authorities neglected to fix faulty signal system 14 hours before the accident occurred. The first train was delayed because its doors didn’t close properly, and yet failed to alert the control tower that it was running behind schedule.
The first person to call for help from the subway accident scene, as in the sinking Sewol ferry, was a passenger, not the staff. The staff were also slow in instructing evacuation, making passengers open subway doors themselves and find the exits. The sequences leading up to the accident uniformly neglected safety procedures.
Safety cannot be assured without investment. But before mulling government funding and debt issuance, the city should have considered an increase in fares. Instead of financing the safety investment through debt, it should persuade citizens to shoulder part of the expense for safety. It must take the risk, even though it has the mayoral and gubernatorial elections coming in June.
Seoul Metro’s lax management must be scrutinized. It has not taken any self-reform actions. The subway operator’s deficit between 2010 and 2012 reached 640 billion won ($624 million). If it had been a private company, it should have frozen salaries and fallen under emergency management. But during the period, the operator paid its employees bonuses worth 200 billion won.
Even as its generous severance compensations were pointed out by the Board of Audit and Inspection and the legislature, it went on to pay out 50 percent in severance losses to employees as a condition to end the labor union’s general railway strike.
Outside directors responsible for offering their experience and expertise to subway operators were mostly placed through political connections.
The offices went to political aides or members of civilian organizations that could help with campaigning, instead of safety and transportation experts. It is no wonder that they contributed little to improve safety or management standards in Seoul’s subway system.
The automation system also raises questions of safety. The union has long opposed increasing the replacement of labor forces with automation, and similar risks and safety concerns are repeated in other countries that adopt automation in train operation.
Automation and unmanned systems, however, cannot be avoided today. Automation is increasingly replacing human labor in delivery services and transportation. We have long been without bus attendants, but cannot argue that buses are less safe without them. On the local lines, the new line at Bundang on the outskirts of Seoul runs unmanned.
According to the white book on railroad safety, 63 percent of train accidents from 2006 to 2010 were caused by human errors. The latest accident in the capital is also man-made. The causes must be thoroughly scrutinized in order to come up with the best prescription to ensure public safety.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 14, Page 26
*The author is head of the economy division at Citizens United for Better Society.
By Kim Young-hoon