Europe must hold on to its 'strong culture of safety'

Personal responsibility must form a large part of improving the EU’s transport safety standards, writes Merja Kyllönen.

By Merja Kyllönen

11 Dec 2014

As a former minister for transport in Finland, I was a strong supporter of stricter limits for driving under the influence, and always the first to volunteer as a lead for road safety campaigns.

However, improving transport safety is about much more than campaigns – I am an advocate for a holistic approach to transport safety. That means that we need to improve both the infrastructure and the technology on our roads, on railways, in aviation and in maritime transport, but we should also not forget the human aspect. Citizens are part of the transport system and our actions and attitudes are also a big part of safe transport.

It often takes a major catastrophe to initiate radical reforms and improvements, in any sector. In Finland, comprehensive maritime safety work was launched after the Estonia disaster in 1994. When the cruise ferry MS Estonia sank on 28 September 1994 in high seas in the northern Baltic Sea, the conditions were very demanding even for an experienced seafarer. The tragic incident was completely unexpected, and many critical seconds and minutes were lost before the seriousness of the situation became clear.

"Citizens are part of the transport system and our actions and attitudes are also a big part of safe transport"

The year following the Estonia disaster, an ambitious maritime safety programme was started, and today the marine traffic control and monitoring system - vessel traffic service - on the coast of Finland is something Finland prides itself upon.

I am especially proud of GOFREP, which is a reporting system in the international waters in the Gulf of Finland. The traffic centres in Tallinn, Helsinki and St. Petersburg monitor shipping movements and provide advice and information about navigational hazards and weather conditions in the Gulf of Finland. During the period when the Gulf of Finland is covered by ice, ships reporting to the traffic centres will receive information on the recommended route through the ice.

Cooperation has to be seamless, and so it has been. I believe the scouts’ motto of 'be prepared' remains quite useful here. For us northerners the Baltic sea and the safety of the traffic within it is of utmost importance. Transport safety and environmental concerns are totally intertwined: if there was a bad accident in the sea, we would most likely have a huge oil spill or some other catastrophe at our hands.

The Baltic sea’s nature is extremely fragile and we know that a huge amount of traffic travels through there every day. Sometimes it has been close, but we have avoided some big accidents thanks to the GOFREP system. I would be very happy to see this fantastic system be exported widely.

This is what transport safety represents at its best: awareness of the problems and their scale; dedicated professionalism of the people working in this field; some intelligent technology being put to good use; and most importantly, good cooperation.

In maritime transport and aviation there is already a very strong culture of safety in Europe. That we must hold on to. We must respect the work of our professionals working in transport and defend their decent working conditions and wages. You can’t have safety if the work is done in a hurry or you have impossible expectations in terms of cost cutting or efficiency. Social dumping is a real danger to transport safety.

Often it is us amateurs who cause problems. Professional transport is actually quite safe. In road transport, we should just look in the mirror: we often bring our problems and attitudes with us into to our cars. This is why I tend to say that the biggest obstacle to transport safety is within our heads. We can all do better.


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