Friday, December 18

Ramming Speed Friday: The Slaughter of Responsibility

We say “safety first,” but in reality we—as in society/government—do not typically address problems, issues, and concerns with safety in mind. Either proactive or reactive assumed liability tends to be the measuring stick by which we govern, decide, and live our lives.

Of course we will smack anyone in the face with the Rule Book of Safety if they suggest we do something that might increase our liability regardless of how much sense the proposal makes. My first experience with this was nearly ten years ago when I approached the superintendent of schools to gauge his support of Safe Routes to School. I described potential projects such as sidewalks, multiuse paths and walking school buses and his reply was: “The school board can't endorse any program which puts kids' lives in danger.”

It's okay to kill them with inactivity, but heaven forbid we suggest that kids might need or even want to walk and bike to school! Or that it would be better for the community and the school board to get more people out of their cars to reduce congestion of both the streets and the heart.

The notion that we—as individuals, as private organizations, or as governments—might be liable for some tiny infraction and potentially exorbitant costs (regardless of who was at fault in the matter) has warped the way we make individual and collective decisions. We can no longer choose to embark on some valuable endeavor and plan out a course using good judgment and values as our guide. No, we have to scale every color swatch and good idea against our potential liability for some imagined future accident.

If you should find yourself in a meeting with engineering-minded folks you'll no doubt hear the answer to some hypothetical: “But it doesn't meet the standard.” We got to meet those standards! Don't deviate from the standards! Because if you don't meet the standard and some drunken soul plows headlong into a misplaced guardrail with their Grand Am we might have to compensate the so-called victim.

If the court determines that the City or County (We) were 10% liable because We failed to put a #3 Object Marker on that ol' hick'ry tree next to the road and they managed to inflict $2 million upon flesh and property then We might be on the hook for 10% or $200,000.

Our now disabled Grand Am pilot got off pretty good for simply plowing into a fixed liability.

Or maybe We had set the speed limit too low. How could We do such a thing? Well, you do a radar study. You clock users on a County road and then take the 85th percentile of the overall speed and that's where you set your speed limit. So if your neighbors are comfortable and have made habit of driving excessively fast on your road then likely the speed limit will be set too high for the “design” of the road. That's what sparked the complaints to begin with.

Ha. Design. The road in front of my house was not designed for a certain prevailing speed. It was, in fact, evolved from a wagon road into the ribbon of curvy racetrack that it is today. There was no design and there was no plan for the current level of traffic that it handles. So while twenty or thirty new houses have been built along said narrow, curvy, geometrically deficient roadway in the past twenty years no additional width, planning, or design have been applied.

This is truly not the fault of my cash-strapped County. Except that perhaps we could have benefited from county-wide zoning beginning twenty years ago.

Speed limits on my road...

So we take the 85th percentile of 50 mph which is the prevailing speed (I'm estimating) and post the speed limit at 45 mph. Will the prevailing speed be 45 or 10 miles over as many people assume is safe and legal? Okay, the neighbors complain, You posted the speed limit and people are driving faster and now some teenager has struck Ol' Hick'ry and died. We'll do another radar study.  Prevailing speed is now 55 mph. We set the limit at 50 mph accordingly.

I'm not kidding; this kind of stuff happens.

Alright then, if we can't lower the speed limit on my road can we at least get a “Slow: Children at Play” sign near my house? My kids like to play in the yard, but I'm afraid one of my speeding neighbors will fail to qualify and careen into my yard and kill Billy and/or Sally.

Nope. Those signs are not approved by the MUTCD; they imply that children can, should, and will be playing in the road. We can't promote that type of behavior or We'll be liable.
The only thing that would make this dangerous would be a reckless motorist
Okay, then can you put up a guardrail in front of my house to keep people from glancing off of Ol' Hick'ry and skidding into my front porch?

No. Guardrails must be warranted (which they are not in front of your residence) and they are unsafe because they are a fixed object within the Clear Zone and pose a hazard to motorists.
Oh, which motorists? That guy who is driving 60 mph in front of my house on a twelve foot wide crumbling strip of asphalt with blind horizontal and vertical curves? While texting?

Yes, what if he hits the guardrail and it spears all the way through the car and kills him? His family might sue Us. (I saw photos of such a spearing just the other day)

The dysfunctional web of policies that are meted down from above (The State) have so entangled us in bad logic, poor compulsory decision making, and just plain stupid governance have got to go. Unfortunately I think the real monster in the swamp are the lawyers who create the fiction of liability that the rest of us see as reality.

The hallowed standards typically fail to address context or the living environment around infrastructure. And our standards for construction and the arrangement of signs and road markings favor the careless motorist at the expense of the inhabitants and their property lining both sides of the road.

During the training session that I recently sat in on that inspired this particular post a magistrate asked the question: “Could we set speed limits countywide to 35 mph through an ordinance?” And instead of answering the question the district highway representative answered by defending the state statute rural speed limit of 55 mph with no good logic. To which the magistrate countered: “Fifty-five is too fast on almost all of our roads.” The district rep countered with: “Well, if you pas the ordinance with no enforcement then you're doing more harm than good” which I see as classic engineering deflection from the issue at hand.

If 55 is realistically too fast for motorists to travel upon rural roads that evolved from wagon roads then you have absolutely no power of enforcement against unsafe speeding if you abide by KRS 178.blah, blah, blah. But if you pass an ordinance that states that all county roads are 35 mph unless otherwise posted then you suddenly have the ability to enforce speeds for motorists who drive 50 mph on a road for which that speed is far too fast for safety.

And so it's get sued this and get sued that. If the sign isn't reflective you'll get sued. If the sign is in the wrong place you'll get sued. If someone drives off in a rage and plows into a tree and dies you'll probably get sued by the “victim's” family because you didn't maintain the Clear Zone. This did actually happen and the family was awarded a cash, settlement.

Fear of being sued is the only metric that seems to apply in roadway decision-making. The higher the level of fear the more likely we protect the reckless motorists?
In the end it seems all questionable decisions are justified by safety, though if safety were truly paramount ALL speed limits would be 25 mph or less. The moral of today's story is that signs are placed along roadways and speed limits are set in your neighborhood based on the perceived liability associated with doing so or not.

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