Complexity made simple.

Multivariate systems only appear to be complex if you don’t understand them. The weather for example seems to be massively complex, but once people understood the heat cycle then how the weather actually worked was no longer a mystery. Same goes for continental drift, germ theory, evolution and a whole raft of other scientific enquiries. The road transport system looks at first glance to be very complex, but once you start to pare it down to its fundamentals it’s not as scary as it first appears.

What the road safety industry has been lacking up ‘til now is a simple theory of road accident causation. Without such a theory or framework all solutions to the accident problem may appear to be valid even though a lot of them are probably without merit. We have stacks of data about the problem, but no theory to determine which bits of data are valid and which are not worth bothering with.

Our little group decided to approach the problem from the point of view of theory as without a viable theory nothing would truly make any sense. When you think about it the road transport system can be easily described as human beings operating complex machinery in a hostile environment. This leads us to the understanding that whatever theory we came up with it would have to work for all similar systems as well and not just the operation of motor vehicles. Guided by the systems theories of Dekker, Reason, Deming et al, it was clear that the following quote from Dekker was the place to start looking for answers.

“It is to find out why their assessments and actions (of people involved in accidents) made sense to them at the time, given how their situation looked from the inside”.

It is clear then that a theoretical framework for understanding road accident causation was to be found by looking at the problem from the inside out rather than from the outside in as is more typically the case.

To find out why assessments and actions make sense in the run up to an accident it would be necessary to have a really strong insight as to the function of the human brain as its the brain that’s actually doing the driving and riding after all. Brains are considered by many to be the most complex things in the known universe, yet as we have discovered earlier even the most complex of systems can be easily deconstructed to reveal their foundation truths. It’s only recently however that a theory of brain function has been put in place and like all the other theories it’s beautifully simple and hence very easy to understand.

The theory is in three parts. 1) We have a brain for one reason only and that is the creation of complex and adaptable movement because movement is the only way we can affect the world around us. 2) A massive memory structure stores sequences of movement patterns in time and space that have been experienced via the senses. 3) When similar sequences of movement patterns are experienced the memory makes predictions as to the next sequence of movement patterns and so on. When the memory fails to make the correct prediction as to the future state of the world it has to be able to warn us in some way that it has indeed made that error. The method it uses to alert us and one which will always attract our attention is the surprise!

A century or so of neuro-scientific research boiled down to a few short sentences, but the idea that it is movement and the prediction of movement that governs our brain function is one that everybody should take to heart.

Many people consider the accident problem to be an intractable one because they feel that road accidents happen largely at random and that no simple idea or theory would be able to account for this. There is indeed a great deal of randomness in the ‘when’ of accidents, but there is actually very little in the how and the why of same. When we consider that in the five standard motorcycle accidents there is essentially only an incorrect prediction (and the subsequent surprise) as the failure mode then we can see that apparent randomness is hiding what’s actually happening. It follows then that if those people that had been involved in accidents had predicted the future state of the world correctly then the accidents simply couldn’t have happened. With prediction error and subsequent surprise confirmed as the underlying structure of each and every road accident what was once viewed as being a massively complex problem is now no more difficult to understand than those other once complex problems.

As mentioned earlier the test of the theory would be whether or not it worked in similar environments to the road transport system. Look at any high profile accident that has made the news from Chernobyl to the Herald of Free Enterprise and the clearly linking feature is the fact that everybody involved was at some point surprised at the turn of events.

Prediction failure and the subsequent surprise is certainly apparent in the above mentioned accidents and investigations of many different accident scenarios tell the same tale. If there is no surprise there can be no accident is a statement that can be used in just about every accident scenario no matter how complex. In fact it’s difficult to imagine any scenario where that would not be true.