Much to learn from aviation safety culture

My husband is a private pilot so we fly often. This makes me wonder about  differences between safety beliefs and behaviors in aviation vs. motor vehicles. A relative who doesn’t get to fly in four-seater planes is staying with us this week, so yesterday we flew to Madison, Wisconsin for dinner (at Bluephies if you must know, and if you’re in town you must go!).

During the flight, my husband explained to his cousin all the dashboard controls that monitor altitude, attitude, other air traffic, the weather down to within a few miles of our plane both horizontal and vertical space (yeah I’m not a pilot so I’m writing this layman terms), airspeed, all the nifty features of the GPS. I was ignoring the conversation because I’ve heard this routine many times. Until he said the words that caught my attention … “situational awareness.” All of these instruments, plus the ongoing conversation via the radio, maintain constant situational awareness, which we all consciously know is life-or-death critical to safety while flying. Ignore any of them at your peril.

Situational awareness is critical for safely “piloting” motor vehicles too, but do we pay so much conscious attention to it? Do we  place such a high value on it? No. How many drivers have even spoken the words “situational awareness” while talking about their cars’ dashboards? Have you ever heard these words? (those of us working on driving safety don’t count!) Instead we tend to show off the really cool things that don’t have much to do with driving — wi-fi speakers, music, etc.

Whenever my husband asks his passengers for complete silence while taking off and landing the plane, it reminds me of the cognitive distraction of talking on cell phones while driving, and the impact of this distraction in driving situations with a heavier workload and higher crash risk, such as intersections and stop-and-go rush hour freeway traffic. When flying, the need for the pilot’s complete attention is 100% front-and-center. This deep safety value is not in motor vehicle driving culture for many reasons, and the differences are interesting. I’ll explore these more in the future.

At a recent national meeting about traffic safety culture, one participant raised a question about aviation safety culture as a model. How did values, beliefs and behaviors toward safety move from the barnstorming culture to the safety-conscious culture that exists today? And what can we learn to help influence safer motor vehicle driving behavior? Watch for more about this here …

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