Big technology companies fail to act on NTSB request

Written by David C. Lester, Editor-in-Chief
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Public Utilities Commission of Ohio grants money for grade crossing improvements.
Operation Lifesaver, Inc.

The horror of grade crossing accidents has been with us since the first railroad turned a wheel.  Even before automobiles, farmers and others carrying heavy wagon loads in horse-drawn trailers perished at railroad crossings.  Nearly two centuries later, with lots of technology at our disposal, people still die trying to beat the train.

Politico is reporting The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) asked 14 tech companies – including giants Google, Apple, and Microsoft – to include railroad crossings in their navigation software.   The request was made in 2016, and the three large tech giants have failed to act on it.

The use of cell phone navigation systems for finding directions around the corner or for destinations hundreds of miles away has grown exponentially over the past decade.  Gone are the days where the service station map or the road atlas served as the bible for finding one’s way on the road.  Now, it’s GPS-driven software and an artificial voice directing which way to turn, all on a device that’s less than half the size of a folded service station map.

The debate between the tech companies and the NTSB stems from a crash in Oxnard, California in February 2015.  In this instance, a truck driver was using Google Maps to find his way, and accidentally found himself sitting on railroad tracks and later hit by a train that killed the engineer and injured 32 others on the train.

Politico says that Google reported that it is “aware” of the “recommendation and will continue to look for new ways to bring drivers useful features that help them get around safely.”  Apple and Microsoft did not respond to Politico’s request for comment about this statement, nor have they responded to the NTSB.  Google’s argument to the NTSB for not including railroad crossing information seems to be rooted in their quest for a balanced application that will distract or confuse drivers.

The NTSB told the chiefs of the 14 tech companies it contacted that including railroad crossings in its navigation software would “provide road users with additional safety cues and . . . reduce the likelihood of crashes.”

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the NTSB maintain lines of communication with tech companies on this issue, but communication so far has not borne much, if any, fruit.

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