Toespraak van prof. mr. Pieter van Vollenhoven bij de opening van het Centre for Disaster Resilience in Enschede

De toespraak is uitgesproken in het Engels.

Your Royal Highness,
Mr Commissioner of the King,
Mr Mayor,
Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,

First of all let me congratulate you with the official opening of the new Centre for Disaster Resilience. 
This is indeed also for me a very special occasion. Because today, for the first time in my life, my wife and I will speak at the same symposium, and both on the subject of safety. And this is taking place at the University of Twente, which played - in my opinion - a mysterious role in this regard.

When we got married in 1967 – yes, 54 years ago – many people believed that our marriage was doomed to fail. The fact that we are still happily together and that we seem quite content was perhaps the reason why the University of Twente decided to make us the subject of some further research.

In 2005 this university appointed me as Professor of Risk Management. Some years later – in 2018 – the Princess Margriet Chair was also established at this university. Central to this Chair is the notion that ‘prevention is better than cure’, or rather ‘risk reduction before the event is better than assistance after’. In other words, due to all the theoretical models we should never have married each other. I suspect that this was the reason why the University of Twente wanted to explore whether indeed the slogan is right that ‘the exception proves the rule’.  

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to take you through my personal experience with the subject of safety. In 1977, I was invited to become the chairman of the independent Road Safety Council in the Netherlands. In the 70’s, the road accident figures in our country rose dramatically, to around 3,000 deaths and 70,000 injuries each year. At the installation of this council, the minister said that its job was to ensure that the subject of road safety would remain high on the political agenda, and that the council should act as a watchdog. I found that a remarkable comment: ‘to act as a watchdog’. Because you would think that these figures spoke for themselves. Why would you need a watchdog? But in reality, the campaign for road safety proved to be a highly complicated matter.

At that time, there were too many autonomous road authorities in our country. And as you know, autonomy is sacred. And road users had been brought up with great freedom, which they certainly did not want to lose. The introduction of seatbelts was therefore seen as a violation of human rights. And I’m sure that many of you will remember the endless debates on the introduction of speed limits. All these measures were seen as major restrictions on our freedom. 

In short, no one wanted to hear the Council’s recommendations. Neither government ministers, nor road users. Recommendations were not welcome at all and our reports had to be approved before they could be published. The best thing would be to disband this independent council as soon as possible. That was seen as the ideal solution. 

I often found myself wondering, for whom am I doing this work? My reasons to continue this struggle came from my encounters with disabled athletes. I learned that 65 per cent of these young people had become disabled due to road accidents. None of them spoke or thought lightly of this. Moreover these victims had also been completely abandoned to their fate. These encounters were for me not only the reason to continue my campaign for road safety, but also to work for victim support. An issue that was seen by the ministers in those days as a non-issue. 

In 1983 I went on a working visit to the United States. There too, the road accident figures were high. In that year 1983, the number of people who died on US roads, was equal to the number of soldiers who had lost their lives in the entire 14 years of the Vietnam War. About 55,000! During my visit, I learned about the activities of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). 

It was set up by Congress in 1967 to carry out independent investigations into serious accidents in all the transport modes: aviation, shipping, rail, road and pipelines. The purpose of these independent investigations was not only to find out exactly what had happened, but also to improve safety in all the transport modes. 

This first encounter with the NTSB convinced me completely. If you really want to improve safety, you need to hold up the mirror of reality to society. If that doesn’t help, then nothing will. Certainly not recommendations what the minister hadn’t asked for. And so, in 1983 I wrote a letter to the minister, saying that we in the Netherlands should also set up an independent safety board. At the time I had no idea that this process would take me 22 years. Why did it take 22 years?

First, the ministers were opposed to establish an independent organisation responsible for accident investigations. They even regarded it as a vote of no-confidence in the work of their own civil servants. Because in the past, the government inspectorates were in charge of carrying out these independent investigations – this investigation was accompanied by an independent committee, but the inspectorates were in charge. With an ‘independent’ organisation, the ministers would lose their influence on these investigations. Although we promised that no stone would be left unturned, in reality the minister could first see what the stone looked like, and then decide whether it should be left in place or turned in other words, all the ministers were completely against an independent safety board. 

The next question was: should you organise these investigations in “one” board or did every sector need its own investigation board? What does aviation have to do with road safety or with the medical sector or the chemical industry? In short the opinion was, you should organise independent investigations by sector, and absolutely not establish one investigation board for all the modes.

Finally, the courts considered the truth not to be the domain of independent investigations. After all, the courts, too, could reach reliable conclusions to what exactly had happened! Later people realised that the courts had their own obstacles in discovering the truth. Decisions of the civil courts, for example, are “confined” to the claims, brought before them, by the parties in a lawsuit. And the criminal court decides only whether the charges brought by the public prosecutor can be proved and the defendant has the right to remain silent. So the courts are limited with regard to truth-finding.

There were many reports and conferences on the subject of independent investigations in those 22 years. But it took two terrible disasters in our country, followed by two motions in the House of Representatives, before a single, independent investigation organisation was established in the Netherlands. Without these accidents I doubt very much if the Dutch Safety Board was ever realised.

Ladies and gentlemen, we speak about ‘Resilience’, but I prefer “prevention is better than cure”. I found it remarkable that in all the independent investigations the findings were ‘never’ a bolt from the blue. The people on the floor were always fully aware of the abuses and the defects. But criticism and the truth were not popular items and the people were told that they could leave if they didn’t like their job.

Safety takes – too often – a second place when economic interests are at stake. Rules and regulations have been made, but compliance is expensive. And the question is always: how often these risks will occur? If we have to pay to cover all those risks, we can’t compete. We are out of competition.

And this is happening everywhere. When for example the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster occurred, it was a known fact that the O-rings seals occasionally leaked. But it would be too expensive to postpone the launch programme, and nothing has ever gone wrong before! Had it?

Resilience or the saying “prevention is better than cure” are endorsed by many people. But they will be undermined if we don’t keep our agreements and voice repeated warnings about dangers that have fallen on deaf ears. Safety measures are expensive and indeed you never know when the risks will occur. But the cost come before the benefits.

Convince with your new Centre for Resilience with your reports the society and write always the truth. A long breath and independence are necessary to be able to achieve your goals. Don’t be disappointed if you reach your goals only after 22 years. The result counts. And support also independent supervision or independent inspectorates. 

I wish you every success. And never lose heart! Thank you very much for your attention.