Safety Culture

Between Angels and the GPS

October 19, 2010
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"This is all about safety," I declared to my wife as the mission unfolded.

Whenever your 18-year-old daughter is traveling back roads far from home you better be talking safety. I've railed against crotchety, stale safety lectures for years, but when it comes to your own kid, I see nothing wrong with exerting some command and control.

At least taking a stab at it.

The mission in this case was one of those teenage declarations of independence. And as history teaches us, declarations of independence usually carry with them an element of risk. This one was no different.

Kate was on a mission, your typical determined teenager, to drive to visit her boyfriend at his college some 200 miles away. MapQuest pegged the driving time at four hours and six minutes.

So before mission launch, naturally we reviewed the safety checklist:

Gas tank full? Yes.

Cell phone charged? Yes.

Seat belts buckled? Check.

Global positioning system operational? Not installed in this typical college freshman's used compact.

Should we rent a car with GSP? "Dad, you've got to be kidding."

Co-pilot, navigator, another warm body along for the ride? Negative. No room at the inn. Boyfriend's roommates won't allow it. Everyone eligible bailed. Pick your flimsy excuse.

We reviewed the MapQuest directions. Too complicated for my liking, vague, confusing and open to multiple interpretations, like some OSHA regulation. Too many turns, merges, towards, becomes - as in MD-5 becomes MD-5 S becomes MD-235 S. Twenty-eight steps, all told.

Kate was supremely confident, your typical determined teenage adventurer. "I get it, dad. Not a problem." When she pulled out of the driveway I was tempted to call a veteran safety guy I know, who used to send his daughter off on an eight-hour drive to her school. What were his instructions?

Then I thought of Peter Sandman, the risk communications expert, who recalled in an ISHN interview his eldest daughter once informing him: "Dad, if I’m optimizing only for safety then I'll never get out of the driveway. (Peter was paraphrasing I'm sure.) I have to compromise safety with getting somewhere.” Said Peter: "She was just flat out right. No one wants to optimize safety by shutting down."

Don't you hate it when the kids are "just flat out right"? You can't shut 'em down; you just turn 'em over to the angels, as my brother says, who's raised a couple of teenage boys.

Kate's mission from Philadelphia down to the southern tip of Maryland's western shore on the Chesapeake Bay went according to plan for, oh, about three hours. Then my cell rang.

"Uh, dad, I missed my exit."

Outside it was becoming dark. I knew she had left too late. I stammered to her mother: "Why'd you let me let her leave?"

Suddenly our dining room became NASA's mission control, or the command bunker from the TV series "24." I only wish we had the counter-terrorist unit's ultra-tech computerized tracking equipment. Instead, an old road atlas map of Maryland would have to do.

"OK, where are you?" I asked, my failing baby boomer eyes squinting at the impossibly small route numbers.

Turns out she was somewhere between Odenton and Bowie. I was ready to abort the mission. But getting her to re-trace her steps, in the dark, to get back home would be no less risky than getting her on the road to her destination. Time for another safety check: Windows rolled up? Check.

Doors locked? Check.

Cell phone battery OK? Check.

Night vision contacts in? Check.

From our mission control dining room table, her mom and I directed her, like some wayward astronaut in the night, back on course. But to confirm she was indeed on the right road (of course there were no road signs when needed) she'd have to pull into a 7-11 and ask at the counter. This was not my idea of "optimizing for safety." I didn't like the picture in my mind of this 18-year-old girl, tanned and looking fresh from spring break, stopping her car anywhere in the dark.

"Keep your cell phone with you, Kate. What are you doing?" "I'm getting out of the car." "Now what are you doing?" "I'm waiting in line." "And now?" "Still waiting, dad."

How would Peter Sandman have handled this? Or my other safety friend with his daughter?

We ended up on the cell phone with Kate for two hours, until the moment she drove into the Pizza Hut parking lot and saw her boyfriend's car, waiting to lead her the rest of the way. "Are you sure it's his?" "Yep." "Check again. Do you see him?" "Dad!"

I put away the map and stared at the clock. It was after ten. Somewhere between the angels and the GPS, I thought, there are things about safety you just can't control.

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