Amanda Ripley

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Secrets & Lies on the DC Metro

23rd Jun 2009 posted in General

Accidents happen. One way to compound the damage is to keep important information from the public—the very people who need the information most. You end up with what happened last night in DC—hundreds of passengers stranded without any idea what was happening. Passengers stuck in trains and stations for hours, hearing regular announcements about a “train experiencing mechanical difficulties” up ahead—not hearing what CNN and the Washington Post were reporting at the same time, about a massive collision that paralyzed the entire Metro system.

A revealing chronology of alerts in the Washington Post today. You can see that the people given the least amount of information last night were the passengers riding Metro—who received the “WMATA Alerts” listed below. In fact, the WMATA press releases were much more honest and detailed than the alerts that went out to the public. It appears that Metro authorities trusted reporters (of all people) more than their customers.

Excerpted from the Post‘s chronology:

5:00 p.m.: Approximate time of crash between Fort Totten and Takoma stations.

5:18 p.m.: WMATA Alert:(ID 55699) Disruption at Fort Totten. Trains are turning back at Brookland and Takoma due to a train experiencing mechanical difficulties outside of Fort Totten station. Shuttle Bus service has been requested.

5:29 p.m.: Washington Post confirms crash and derailment.

5:36 p.m.: WMATA Alert: (ID 55699) Disruption at Fort Totten. Trains are turning back at Rhode Island Ave and Silver Spring stations due to a train experiencing mechanical difficulties outside of Fort Totten station. Shuttle Bus service has been requested.

5:36 p.m.: WMATA Press Release on derailment and “collision.”

6:03 p.m.: WMATA Press Release confirms first two fatalities.

6:07 p.m.: WMATA Alert: (ID 55699) Disruption at Fort Totten. Trains are turning back at Rhode Island Ave and Silver Spring stations due to a train experiencing mechanical difficulties outside of Fort Totten station. Shuttle Bus service has been established. Customers should add an additional 30 minutes to their travel time.

This is a familiar pattern in the history of disasters. The people in charge are often very reluctant to share information with the most important actors—the regular people at the scene. Why is that? What is the built-in bias at work here?

People in positions of authority have a tendency to distrust the public. They believe that, given frightening information, the public will panic.

It’s a prejudice that pervades many bureaucracies, even on a normal day. In my book, I write about one of the routine announcements used on the Metro system: “In the event of a fire,” the taped announcement warns, “remain calm and listen for instructions.” That’s it. Hundreds of conversations and thoughts were interrupted for that announcement. What was the message? That the officials who run the subway system do not trust me. They think I will dissolve into hysterics and ignore instructions in the event of a fire.

Consider what the people who created this announcement did not do: they had an excellent opportunity to tell me how many subway fires happen in the D.C. system each year. That would have gotten my attention. They also had a chance to explain why it’s almost always better to stay in the subway car in case of a fire (because the rails on the track can electrocute you, and the tunnels are, in some places, too narrow to fit through if a train is coming). But instead, they just told me not to panic.

The panic myth is pervasive, but the research reveals it to be false: Panic is extremely hard to find in the history of disasters. Why? Because it’s not in our survival interest to panic. Groups of frightened humans (like frightened chimpanzees and other animals) tend to form groups, stick together and show each other unusual courtesy. That is the kind of behavior that Metro should plan for.

People will do remarkable things when they have information. On 9/11, the people who saved the most lives were regular people who had information. Passengers on Flight 93 had time and ability to learn what had become of the other hijacked planes. They considered their options, discussed a plan and took action. It was regular people who prevented a plane from plowing into Congress or the White House—the headquarters, ironically, of the people in charge. Regular people must be trusted.