Friday, September 30, 2011

Swallowing Without Looking

Sometimes I have to stop and question things that just don't quite seem right.  Maybe it's because I'm a big fan of George Carlin, Frank Zappa and others that never made a habit of accepting things blindly.

Case in point: Light Rail safety PSA campaign

The ads say "Light rail safety.  It begins with you."

This is wrong.  There is no logic in this statement whatsoever.  None.  Zero.  It's completely wrong and stupid.  The fact that people accept this statement without question, is one thing. But when people take it up on defensive posture during a discussion, well, that's just shitheaded.

Is it bad to emphasize safety?  No.

Is it bad to suggest pedestrians and drivers be safe around light rail systems?  No.

So what's wrong?

Here's what's wrong:  Light rail safety, like any infrastructure-oriented safety, doesn't "begin" with "you".  It begins with a safe design.



Consider this:  If a system makes it not only possible, but probable, even predictably probable, for a categorical "accident" to occur, it has failed the safe design test.  FAILED.  This is one of the basic tenants of statistical analysis.  You're supposed to strive to minimize risk and failure in any system that adds risk to human life or well-being.  A basic statistician can calculate the relative risk deviations between two alternative design patterns.  A categorical failure would be a pedestrian interaction with the movement of the train car, or that between a personal or commercial vehicle and a train car.

Typically, the approach would be to identify parallel "baseline" systems to assess comparative risk and probability.  This isn't the first light rail system to be built in a U.S. city.  There are likely many "lessons learned" that could provide excellent baselines on which to determine the relative deviations and risks.  Damn.  I think that's also referred to as "learning from past experience".

The next step would be to take that assessment data and work to mitigate those risks to "close the gap" between the proposed design and other existing designs.  For example, to mitigate the risk of a collision between ground-dwelling pedestrians, cars, trucks, motorcycles and buses, you could raise the light rail tracks above ground to provide isolation.  Gee.  Sound familiar to any of you folks in Chicago?  This also serves another, equally important goal: isolating new systems from interfering with existing systems.

The culprit here is obvious: Funding.  But funding was actually a symptom of politics, as it usually is.  In this case, the other near-by cities backed off from committing to the project because of political pressure to cut spending across the board in a Recession.  So Norfolk went for it alone.  Because they couldn't afford the added costs of raising the tracks from end-to-end, we have a system that is less than ideal, but workable.  Risky, but predictably so, at least somewhat.

Would an elevated track design be the perfect solution? Nothing is perfect.  However, such a design change would arguably provide risk mitigation for at least two of the identified categorical risks: interference and collision.  These two risks are very high on the probability score for causing injury or death, which are bad (at least, that's what I was told).

They knew of these risks well in advance.  Otherwise, how would they have scripted and produced the ads to convey this message a year ahead of the grand opening?

When someone or some people collectively agree to proceed with something that has known dangers, we call it "acceptable risk".  Drug companies, tobacco companies and car manufacturers operate on acceptable risk every second of every day.  So do pilots, divers, EOD technicians, and even school teachers.  You do it to: every time you drive your car, motorcycle or truck.

There are no "sort of" grades here though.  A logical statement is a logical statement - or it isn't.  Think of commercial aircraft: What if the airlines said that safety of the aircraft in flight "begins with YOU", rather than with a safe aircraft, trained crew and reliable parts?  Still make sense to you?  How about, "safety in the operating room - begins with YOU", rather than a skilled surgeon and staff, and sterile equipment?  That would be stupid.  So is arguing that "we" as riders are primarily responsible for the safety of the light rail system.  Stop letting these D-grade marketing ad campaign morons off the hook.  I'm convinced the ads are dumb is because Norfolk couldn't afford to pay for a better Advertising firm, which I can understand.

Am I overreacting?  Maybe.  Or is it shining a light on yet another whittling away at our collective sense of acceptable logic?  Remember when you were five or six, and you questioned everything you saw or heard?  Why did you stop?  Why do we all stop?

How then, should the PSA have been worded?

"Light rail safety.  It's important for all of us."

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