MIND IN NEUTRAL Michael Grey from Lloyds List 03 August 2018

Why on earth do well-found ships, properly manned by certificated officers and crews, manage to run aground or collide, in circumstances that seem to defy rational explanation?

There seems little excuse, in an era when circling satellites provide all the positioning data those on board a ship might need.

It was understandable in the days of dead reckoning and before the all-seeing eye of radar. But the equipment on a modern ship, if properly set up and diligently used, ought to make such casualties impossible.

It is by no means an original suggestion, but may the versatility and capability of the equipment itself contribute to the human navigator, or engineer for that matter, just losing concentration?

And then, when an unforeseen hazard occurs, failing to put a mind that is coasting along in neutral, back into an operational gear? If we are relegating a ship’s officer, who has probably passed all sorts of statutory examinations, to the role of a mere overseer of smart machines, how can an intelligent person remain focused?

More years ago than I care to remember, when I was serving an apprenticeship at sea, we were forced to relieve the quartermaster on the wheel for a two-hour stretch from 0600 hrs every morning. Quite what it was supposed to teach us I cannot recall, other than patience and fortitude, as it was one of the most mind-numbingly boring jobs you could imagine on a deepsea passage.

Just keeping the wretched ship on course, half-asleep and looking forward to a large breakfast, was a real challenge of concentration. The occasional sarcastic question from the Second Mate, looking up from his star calculations, to find the ship falling off the course and the gyro ticking away reproachfully, was a reminder that I really was not cut out for the job.

“Trying to write your name in the sea, Grey?” It is why automatic steering machinery was invented.

Vigilance and attention are important qualities. Those involved in search and rescue operations are regularly relieved from their visual or radar lookouts because it is known concentration wanes after about 20 minutes. It is the same with air traffic control operators, whose lapse in attention could be fatal. Maybe we should learn from these roles.

There is a debate about whether the “driver-assist” features on the latest high-end road vehicles are too clever for their own good, easing the job of driving to such an extent that concentration lapses. Anyone with half a brain, who is not making or selling cars for a living, can see this problem a mile off.

Devices that ought to be banned

One can only hope that before too many people meet an untimely end on our roads, something may be done about this, because anything that distracts the driver from the main task of keeping the car safe is potentially lethal. It ought also to divert our regulators from their current enthusiasm for “driverless” vehicles, before too much taxpayers’ money is shovelled into this fatal project.

Devices that minimise the need for concentration, permitting the mind to wander and even to become engaged on other tasks, ought to be banned, whether we are talking about a “self-driving” truck or a large ship with equipment that removes all the actual work from sentient human beings aboard.

Initially, automation on land or sea was regarded as wholly positive, as it removed the need for people to be engaged in boring, repetitive work that they probably could not do as well as a machine.

The people could be doing something more useful. But on the bridge or machinery space of a ship, if the watchkeepers have to be there, they are better engaged with the main task of navigating and collision avoidance, and not relegated to “long stop”, overseeing the equipment that is doing all the work and intervening only when it breaks down.

Casualty after casualty reveals the person whose attention might have averted the incident was either suffering from a wandering mind, or possibly even asleep, as there was little to keep them awake in this supine role of overseer.

Casualty investigators often cite “complacency”, but I would suggest that a “mind in neutral”, lulled into a semi-comatose state of non-intervention is as often to blame.

What is the point of this equipment, with its need for frequent updates, its cost and complexity, if it contributes to this state of “operator” non-involvement? Might actual practice demonstrate the negatives outweigh the positives?

You will not get any of the clever folk developing and manufacturing this equipment to admit this, because they energetically lobby the International Maritime Organization to persuade it that fitting their latest all singing, all dancing gizmo should be made mandatory.

I recall a friendship of many years with a chief sales manager of navigational equipment being somewhat strained when I suggested he should wire up watchkeepers to electrodes and give them electric shocks to keep them concentrating, such were the tasks his latest “integrated navigator” was removing from their roles.

I suggest the rule makers ought only to listen to those who actually run ships for a living before letting the manufacturers into the IMO building. But I doubt that this will happen.

Unlike those people at sea, trying to stay awake and focused, the vested interests never lose their concentration.

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