If there was one single thing motivating me on this project, it was the desire to make this street safer.
Eng.: It means the grade and alignment of the street do not meet the standard, and so we are going to fix that.
Resident: What is the standard?
My understanding of safety in this situation comes from accepted industry practice. Engineers have books of codes and standards that outline all aspects of safe design, from how wide to make a street to where to put the signs. I not only had access to these texts, I had been trained in how to interpret them properly.
I recognized that my role in this interaction was to simplify all of the complicated factors that go into designing a street – all of the institutional knowledge of my profession – into something that a layperson could understand.
Eng.: Basically, the streets must be relatively flat and straight.
Resident: So youʼre going to make the street flat and straight?
Resident: How does that improve safety?
My ability to stay friendly and professional here was important. The woman to whom I was speaking hadnʼt sat through the traffic engineering courses that I had taken – the ones that taught me the history of roadway design. She didnʼt know the horrible death rates of the early automobile era — the time before engineers established modern best practices.
She didnʼt have the training and the background that I had, including access to all of the code books and standards that my profession has developed over decades. She hadnʼt done the continuing education, sat around the table with my fellow engineers hearing details about how bad decisions lead to bad outcomes, and sometimes even death. I forced a half smile and went on.
Eng.: It will allow cars to navigate more smoothly, which makes it safer.
Resident: I donʼt understand.
In traffic engineering, randomness is the enemy of safety. The more variables that we can remove, the more the driver can predict what is going to happen and the safer things become. For the driver, a road that is straight is safer than one with a lot of curves. A road that is flat is safer than one with a lot of hills.
It was difficult for me to explain something so self-evident, so I tried to expand the conversation to an aspect of design that would hopefully be easier to grasp – someplace where we could develop a common understanding and build to more complicated concepts.
Eng.: Along with fixing deficiencies with the grade and the alignment, we will be widening the driving lanes.
Resident: What will that do?
Eng.: It will improve safety.
Resident: How does widening the lanes improve safety?
Okay, this was getting frustrating. It is a little too obvious that wide lanes are safer than narrow lanes. Anyone who has tried to drive down a narrow street, having been forced to slow way down to avoid hitting things, knows that having more space gives the driver a higher safety margin. This was Road Design 101 – the most basic of concepts. I was starting to think that this woman, despite her friendliness, just didnʼt want to get it.
Eng.: Along with fixing the deficiencies in the grade and the alignment, it will allow traffic to flow more smoothly.
Resident: What do you mean by allowing the traffic to flow more smoothly? How does that improve safety?
Eng.: Cars will be able to move without worrying about hitting things, so it will be safer. That is why we are also expanding the clear zone.
Resident: What do you mean by expanding the clear zone?
Having a clear zone on each side of the roadway is another one of these basic design concepts universally understood to improve safety. If a car goes careening off the road surface, all that kinetic energy needs to be dissipated. We donʼt want the car to be brought to an abrupt stop by hitting an obstacle; we want the process of slowing down to happen more gradually.
All traffic engineers have heard the story of a driver losing control, the car going off the road and hitting an obstacle that should never have been there, with tragedy being the predictable result. Establishing an area on each side of the road that is clear of obstacles increases the chance that people will walk away from such an incident. I was taught to insist on it. No compromises with safety.
Eng.: We will be removing obstacles from the clear zone to improve safety.
Resident: What is the clear zone?
Eng.: It is the area on each side of the street that we need to keep clear of obstacles in case cars go off the road.
Resident: What kind of obstacles?
Eng.: Mostly trees.
I steadied myself because I have been in this situation before and knew what was coming. We were standing in a yard full of trees, many of which were going to be cut down. I knew she wasnʼt going to like that. It seemed a selfish reaction to me.
To be continued …
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