I’ve always found Patrick Hudson’s graphic, that maps safety improvements to factors, like technology, systems, and culture an engaging summary. Unfortunately, it’s wrong or at least that’s my experience. I mean not wholly wrong but the reality of achieving safety performance improvement doesn’t look like this graph. Figure 1.
Yes, aviation safety improvement has been as story of continuous improvement, at least if the numbers are aggregated. Yes, a great number of the earlier improvements (1950s-70s) were made by what might be called hard technology improvements. Technical requirements mandated systems and equipment that had to meet higher performance specifications.
For the last two decades, the growth in support for safety management, and the use of risk assessment has made a considerable contribution to aviation safety. Now, safety culture is seen as part of a safety management system. It’s undeniably important.
My argument is that aviation’s complex mix of technology, systems, and culture is not of one superseding the other. This is particularly relevant in respect of safety research. Looking at Figure 1, it could be concluded that there’s not much to be gained by spending on technological solutions to problems because most of the issues rest with the human actors in the system. Again, not diminishing the contribution human error makes to accidents and incidents, the physical context within which errors occur is changing dramatically.
Let’s imagine the role of a sponsor of safety related research who has funds to distribute. For one, there are few such entities because most of the available funds go into making something happen in the first place. New products, aircraft, components, propulsion, or control systems always get the lion’s share of funds. Safety related research is way down the order.
The big aviation safety risks haven’t changed much in recent years, namely: controlled flight into terrain (CFIT), loss of control in-flight (LOC-I), mid-air collision (MAC), runway excursion (RE) and runway incursion (RI). What’s worth noting is that the potential for reducing each one of them is changing as the setting within which aviation operates is changing. Rapid technological innovation is shaping flight and ground operations. The balance between reliance on human activities and automation is changing. Integrated systems are getting more integrated.
As the contribution of human activities reduces so an appeal to culture has less impact. Future errors may be more machine errors rather than human errors.
It’s best to get back to designing in hard safety from day one. Safety related research should focus more on questions like; what does hard safety look like for high levels of automation, including use of artificial intelligence? What does hard safety look like for autonomous flight? What does hard safety look like for dense airspace at low level?
Just a thought.
 Achieving a Safety Culture in Aviation (1999).