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Japanese Train Safety Improved by Learned Reflex

The workers on Japan’s rail system repeatedly call out to no one and point to seemingly nothing. A train driver checking his speed, for example, does not simply glance at the dial. The driver points at it and shouts out, “Speed check, 80.” When staff check whether the platform is clear, they sweep their arms along their view of the platform, their eyes following their hands, before shouting an all-clear signal. The idea is that associating key tasks with physical movements and vocalizations prevents errors by “raising the consciousness levels of workers.”

The gestures are not an inherent part of the task. But the physical reinforcement helps ensure each step is complete and accurate. It works. Crazy as this may seem, these apparently pointless gestures have helped to make it one of the safest railway networks in the world. This pointing-and-calling safety method … reduces workplace errors by up to 85 percent, according to one study. A similar system has been adapted for use on New York’s MTA subway system. As a result, the number of incorrectly berthed trains has been halved.

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