As technology changes, so too does accident investigation

John Clarkson
Member, Transportation Safety Board of Canada

This article first appeared in the spring 2016 edition of the Journal of Ocean Technology.

For more than 25 years, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) has investigated marine accidents from coast to coast to coast. When something goes wrong, we dig deep to find out what happened—and then we dig deeper still to learn why. Because it’s only through understanding the causes and contributing factors of an occurrence that steps can be taken to prevent it from happening again.

TSB reports are based on in-depth interviews, rigorous analysis, and data from some of the most sophisticated scientific equipment available. In fact, since 1997, the TSB has increasingly used navigational software to access a wide array of navigational and communications data, and then played it back in real time to study the final seconds, minutes or even hours of a voyage. Data from Electronic Chart Systems, Automatic Identification Systems, Voyage Data Recorders and onboard recordings such as bridge audio: today we gather all of it. Our Engineering Branch can then use this information to create everything from a mathematical model of a ship to a 3-D picture of the local environment, including shorelines and the placement of any nearby vessels. In some cases, we can overlay the information on top of the vessel’s actual track, creating an animation, complete with audio and special effects!

Over the years, computer-aided recreations have played a role in a number of TSB investigations, including:

  • modelling the inner workings of a lifeboat release-gear mechanism, following a fatal 2006 accident aboard the bulk carrier Sea Urchin in Bay of Sept-Îles, Quebec;
  • recreating the final, fateful moments of the passenger ferry Queen of the North, which sank off the coast of British Columbia in 2006;
  • combining still pictures and on-board video to illustrate the knockdown and capsizing of the tall ship Concordia off the coast of Brazil in 2010; and
  • demonstrating the cause of a fatal 2013 crane accident aboard the bulk carrier Federal Yoshino in Baie-Comeau, Quebec.

Recreations can be valuable both during and after an investigation, especially when it’s time to communicate the content to stakeholders and to the Canadian public. Put simply, some technical factors are just better understood visually, and having compelling images to help tell the story is invaluable.

It’s no easy task doing this kind of work, but the TSB is up to the challenge. As ships and their technology continue to evolve, so too will we—helping to ensure that Canada’s marine transportation network not only remains one of the world’s largest, but also one of its safest.