Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Buck Stops Here

Every one of us makes decisions that affect the safety of other people. Although I hope very few of us have driven drunk, I know that most of us have driven while physically exhausted. But rarely do we think of the potential consequences.

Richard Smith, the captain of the Staten Island Ferry that killed 11 people when his pain medication caused him to pass out, will have to deal with a similar decision for the rest of his life. He chose to work that day despite knowing that he was probably not in the physical condition to do so. What I find somewhat reassuring about this story though is how Smith is willing to accept full responsibility. Stories like this one, where people take all responsibility for their actions always seem hard to come by. For every President Truman, we have a President Bush and President Clinton. And for every Ken Caminiti, there is a Mark McGwire and Raphael Palmeiro. The idealist in me wishes there were more Richard Smith's (and Trumans) in this world.

But beyond Smith’s bad judgment, there is a policy issue here too. New York City requires that both the pilot and the co-pilot be in the wheel house when the boat is docking. Mr. Smith’s supervisor, Patrick Ryan, pleaded guilty to seaman’s manslaughter for not enforcing this policy. Those of us in management or policy positions need to learn something from this. While working in an office, removed from the day to day aspects of the work we might be overseeing, there is a tendency to forget the effect our decisions can have. Whether it is public transportation, police and fire, public schools, or even the military, we will serve our employees better when we make sure never to cut corners when safety is concerned and always keep our employees and clients in mind.