For readers who may not be familiar with every nook and cranny of the Star Wars universe, Mos Eisley is the city where Obi-wan Kenobi took young Luke Skywalker to find a space pilot and begin a quest to save the galaxy from the evil Empire. Before setting foot in the city, Obi-wan warns “you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Ever since the end of World War II, the transport planning and design profession appears to be our galaxy’s version of Mos Eisley. Too harsh of a comparison? I’d like to think Jane Jacobs would agree with me.
It should go without saying that if a street or highway could be designed or engineered in such a way that human lives would be saved, then professionals involved in the project have an obligation to take action. Or in some cases, stand against a proposed [deadly] action. So here is where my personal background is relevant… I am a recovering traffic engineering lemming. First, a definition from Encarta Dictionary. Second, an interpolation from me.
Lemming (noun) doomed conformist; a member of a large group of people who blindly follow one another on a course of action that will lead to destruction for all of them.
Engineering Lemming (noun) doomed conformist; a member of a large group of technical professionals who blindly follow one another in the application of design standards that will lead to destruction and death for the general public.
I was trained in the traditional concepts of engineering where wider is safer, faster is better, and multimodal refers to the various types of cars on the street. Those engineering assumptions were developed following World War II when the United States began developing the Interstate System – a series of roads to transport tanks and other military equipment between major population nodes. Eventually, city streets and neighborhoods were designed with massive equipment in mind – not people. (As any good satirist will tell you, our citizenry has always been willing to do just about anything in the name of “national defense”).
Reports have been widely distributed this year praising the drop in highway deaths. True, there were only 32,000+ deaths on American highways in 2010. In the previous decade, over 400,000 were killed. An average of 110 deaths every day for 10 years! Imagine if Halliburton owned and operated such deadly highways. Let that sink in for a moment. Engineers design streets and highways that are generally owned and operated by federal, state, and local governments – and these facilities were the scene of over 400,000 deaths from 2001 to 2010.
Transportation leaders continue to advocate for more airbags, better tires, more reliable braking systems, more cell phone usage laws, etc. Imagine if the primary focus was… wait for it… designing safer highways.
Around the globe, people designing streets and highways are bound by various codes of ethics. In the United States, requirements for licensure as a professional engineer vary by state, but they all follow the same general guidelines and most importantly–are bound by a code of ethics. The six fundamental canons of the National Society of Professional Engineers (NSPE) code of ethics will serve as my road map for my observations:
- Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
- Perform services only in areas of their competence.
- Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.
- Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
- Avoid deceptive acts.
- Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.
It is my intent to illustrate unethical practices in the engineering community by relating photos of typical streets and highways back to the NSPE code of ethics. It is only a matter of time before prosecutors start targeting the design community when people are killed due to poor design. If we don’t admit where our profession has gone wrong, how will we know what to improve?