How do we stop Civil Engineers from killing people?

A young girl is in the hospital, not expected to survive. Her cousin has leg and head injuries, and her mother is also injured.

And mild-mannered Minnesotan Chuck Marohn is in a white-hot rage about it.

I don’t fundamentally disagree with his point that we’ve shielded civil engineers from our liability- and litigation-happy traditions, and that that exclusion needlessly costs thousands of lives a year. But I don’t know how to get from our current model, which incentivizes Following The Book above all else, to a model that favors actually designing streets to be safe, and I don’t know that anybody else does, either. I agree that a feature of a new model is going to be the ability to sue engineers (and/or DOTs) for the fatal consequences of roads that are unsafe as designed, but I don’t know what the intermediate state between here and there is. We’ve been following our old (broken) model for decades now. Basically every civil engineer practicing today who has ever touched a streetscape diagram (i.e. most of them) is culpable. What do we do about that? Do we fire them all? Strip them all of their licenses? I… am not there yet. The profession has a problem, yes. (Well, many problems.) But burning everything down doesn’t actually get us anywhere.

We need a way to absolve Civil Engineering of its massive backlog of past sins if we’re ever going to get it to stop committing more.

I don’t know what that looks like. Mandatory retraining? A Truth and Reconciliation Commission taking public confessions? Maybe. Those suggestions sound absurd, but it can’t be worse than the daily massacre we have now.

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  1. Obviously this question — of what a profession should do when “just following the rules” results in deaths of innocents — is sort of a theme this week.

    In this particular case, is there an alternative set of standards they should be following yet, or is everyone expected to read blogs and work out for themselves what the guidelines should be? It seems like the best way to help people change might be to give them a new set of standards to hide behind.

  2. The root problem isn’t the engineers themselves. Civil engineers are, by and large, a well-meaning bunch. Infrastructure types generally are. The problem is, instead, the standards the engineers apply. Most of those standards were developed in the 1950s and ’60s, when “pedestrians” were generally thought of as–as obsolete as the cities they inhabited–and metrics were developed around easily-quantifiable automobile patterns.

    Fast forward half a century and we have more powerful mathematics, capable of modeling pedestrian movements (theoretically), a new crop of engineers not at all wedded to the car, increasing awareness and appreciation of how deviations from standards actually improve driver discipline, etc.

    The winds, they are a-changing. They’re just not changing fast enough.

  3. We needn’t fire *all* CE’s. For instance, those who design water treatment plants or structures (like myself) are more firmly bound to science, whereas “traffic” Is more of a political/economic pseudo-science. Chuck Marohn’s recent podcast Gross Negligence makes the case that traffic engineers are liable for “conscious disregard for the safety of others.” And that they want to do the right thing but are “institutionally and intellectually stuck.”

    1. I brought up the prospect of firing all civil engineers mostly as a demonstration that it’s an unworkable prospect. And also that any other major sanctions on the industry as a whole will just result in insurmountable wave of political backlash, and rightly so. If civil engineers got us into this mess, then civil engineers are required to get us out of it, and we need them on board. I am a fan of Chuck Marohn’s, but persuading the engineering profession to engage in the soul searching we would like them to do is not something that I think he has put enough thought into.

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