Remember driver education class when the instructor would sound like a broken record telling you to look over your shoulder to check the “blind spot” before changing lanes? Never mind the questionable wisdom of consciously looking in the opposite direction of travel. I could never wrap my head around the supposed reality that every car on the road had such an obvious safety flaw. Granted I’ve always been the inquisitive type but it just didn’t compute to me. Engineers are supposed to be smarter than that right? Why bother putting mirrors on at all if they don’t work?
Suffice it to say my instructor was not impressed. It was a terribly hot summer and he was stuck in a poorly ventilated, semi-trailer classroom conversion full of teenagers driving him crazy (pun intended) with inane questions. “What if we couldn’t see out the back window? What if we had a chronic neck injury?” On and on it went until our weary instructor played his trump card and squashed the automotive design debate for good. “Do you want to drive to school this fall or walk?” Despite the burning desire to prove him wrong, the taste of freedom that laid waiting on the other side of that driving test was too much to risk. So we relented. But I never forgot how silly the whole thing seemed then and how influential experiences like that were in fueling my passion to “figure things out”.
Fast forward to present day: Drivers ed has long faded from my rear view mirror and low and behold we just purchased a new car with a “blind spot alerting system.” What’s this contrivance you ask? Here’s how it works: There are sensors mounted around the vehicle that function like radar. If those sensors detect another vehicle positioned in the “blind spot,” a light will flash in the corresponding side mirror to alert the driver. Personally I convinced myself a long time ago that the blind spot was a myth. But since this will be our primary family vehicle, the more safety features the better I say.
As I was studying the owner’s manual on all this new technology it got me thinking about these new safety features in the context of a system of controls. In terms of the blind spot awareness sensor our stated risk is colliding with a vehicle in another lane. The mirrors provide a detective control to see other vehicles. Other drivers possibly provide a secondary detective control function (preventive from their perspective) if they honk at us (and we hear it) plus a compensating control if they can swerve out of our way.
But none of those are deemed reliable enough so some genius concocted the additional “preventive” control to look over our shoulder and check manually. While this may mitigate one collision risk, it creates a different, potentially much larger risk if the driver directly in front of us slams on their brakes while we’re busy looking backward. Furthermore, cars are built differently today. They’re bigger, faster, and while safer all around, go ahead and try to actually see anything out the back of an SUV with three rows of seats and oversized headrests. It’s practically impossible and certainly unreasonable to do justice to the task in the split second the average glance seems to last.
Hmmm...interesting. We have risks and multiple controls for those risks but those controls seem to have some weaknesses in common. For instance all are manual, none are reliable due to inconsistency & human error, and one could argue the residual risk (risk after controls) is nearly equal to the inherent risk (risk in absence of controls) in several plausible driving scenarios. Not good. How on earth have we ever managed to drive anyplace safely up to now? This is a marketer’s dream scenario. Magnified risks, diminished controls, and the straw man’s seed of impending crisis in an uncertain world firmly planted in our minds with a few images of our loved ones in a collision that thanks to modern technology is now totally preventable.
Enter our new friend the blind spot alerting system; the holy grail of the control universe, the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful, automated control! We’re saved! That is until we read the fine print in the owner’s manual. Seems it only requires one short paragraph to describe how the feature should work but several more paragraphs with graphics and warnings to point out all the potential ways our fancy new automated control can fail. If the sensor is blocked or dirty it may not register other vehicles (false negative) or cause repeated false positives by alerting erroneously. Certain angles and other driving conditions may also trick the system, and so on. So now we have a new problem. How do we know if our automated control fails? Well we’ll certainly know if we change lanes and smack another car I guess. In information security this would be synonymous with a control failing “open” rather than failing “secure”. Not good.
So what do we do? As Bob Dylan said, “the answer my friends, is blowing in the wind.” Our trusty side mirror relegated to hanging off the door as a mere ornament may yet save us after all. Manual controls get a bad rap because they’re perceived as costly and labor intensive which causes people to either not perform them properly and consistently. When it comes to controls performance, inconsistency=unreliability and that leads to control failures and audit findings. Otherwise there’s nothing inherently wrong with a manual control and in many cases (on a control by control basis) it’s often cheaper than an automated alternative. Case in point: The side mirrors came for free on our new car. Heck they’re actually required by law. However the blind spot awareness system was an additional cost option.
So now we come full circle. We need our side mirrors because we can’t look over our shoulder but as a risk-based control our side mirrors are unreliable, right? That’s what they told us in drivers ed but we never really established why. Let’s assume there was a way we could gain more confidence in our side mirrors as a primary key control. If we could implement a policy change that would improve the accuracy and completeness then we might be able to strengthen the control’s performance enough to sufficiently reduce the residual risk. Let’s call it control refinement or tailoring. If this new policy works we’d essentially have a new system of controls featuring complementary automated and manual controls that backstop each other in a way that always manages the risk.
So with that as our backdrop, please allow me to present the following graphic taken from a 2010 article in Car and Driver Magazine, entitled “How To: Adjust Your Mirrors to Avoid Blind Spots”. That’s right Mr. Driving Instructor, eat my dust.
This is proof that simple solutions are always the best. While I won’t suggest this is perfect for everybody, I will say I’ve used this method for years without fail. It’s worked for me on all sizes of vehicles and has saved me more than once.
Just for fun, in preparation for this article I took our new car out to test my theory that a properly adjusted mirror (tailored manual control) was actually just as reliable as the automated control.
Guess what? Not only was it equally good, it even outshined the blind spot system. While the automated control never missed, the mirror actually detected the approaching vehicle earlier every time. Multiple controls that are each reliable enough to be primary?? What a great problem to have!
So let’s recap: We had a stated risk and a control environment that was failing to adequately manage that risk reliably. Through a disciplined approach to remediation we were able to root-cause our inherent control deficiencies and find a new way to leverage existing resources toward a suitable solution. By retailoring our controls we were also able to rationalize away one of our manual controls (looking over the shoulder) that was costly in terms of risk and unbeneficial. So not only did we achieve control nirvana for no more than the cost of a policy change and a little awareness retraining, we actually reduced our manual controls by 50%! Plus, newly acquired technology allowed us to add an automated control to the mix that not only strengthens and reinforces our existing manual control environment, it also expands our risk coverage into lower likelihood (but high impact) scenarios such as a vehicle with no headlights in our blind spot at night.
And there you have it folks: Policy, risk, controls, and ultimately compliance all from the comfort of your driver’s seat. Have high speed stories of your own to share? I’d love to hear them!