In the wake of the deadly Philadelphia Amtrak crash, there is, rightly, a very strong and immediate desire to find out what went wrong, why it went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again.
Initial data shows the train was traveling at over 100 miles an hour, well in excess of the limit for that stretch of track. This prompted Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter to comment, “Clearly it was reckless in terms of the driving by the engineer. There’s no way in the world he should have been going that fast into the curve.”
The Mayor may be right.
But, he may also be wrong.
Robert Sumwalt, a board member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) responded to the Mayor’s comments by saying, “We want to get the facts before we start making judgments.” Faulty breaks, he noted, could have been involved.
It’s a good reminder that, no matter what the stakes are in any investigation, and no matter how visibly the gun is smoking, it’s critical not to rush to a conclusion. Instead you need to have all the facts before any conclusions are drawn. That’s as true in a train crash as it is in an investigation of a sexual harassment claim or an FCPA violation. As Meric Bloch observed in his book The First Information is Almost Always Wrong, “The first task in your new case is to slow — and calm — everyone down.” The problem, he observes, is that, “Spreading hysteria is always more entertaining than dealing with facts.” But a good investigation is based on facts.
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The NTSB seems to be showing patient, purposeful determination in finding the cause of the horrible incident, an accident that, if repeated, would likely have equally deadly consequences. So too must we caution patience when conducting a compliance investigation, because while everyone wants an immediate answer, that’s not necessarily the right answer.