Monday, February 04, 2013

How not to deal with an up-tick in crashes

The story of the Boston bus crash this past weekend takes on a new dimension with the revelation by a spokesperson for the state agency that it had "seen an uptick" recently in the number of vehicles that had been hitting overpasses, "mostly by box trucks, vehicles that you can rent," by people who are not used to driving them.  Listen to this interview on Radio Boston.

The inaction by DCR in response to this trend is all the more striking when one considers that the solution to the problem was put in place 30 years ago.  It was low-cost, low-tech, and effective: Hang rubber signs saying "cars only" at every entrance to the river roads, at a height equivalent to the coming underpasses.  Much has been made of the cowbells that were attached to the signs, but the significant innovation were the signs themselves.

The "up-tick", I 'd like to suggest, is the result of the deterioration of the system Bill Geary put in place in the 1980s.  Because of my personal interest in this bit of urban infrastructure, over the last year or two, I have noticed a growing number of instances where the signs have been missing.  Often, all that was left were the chains that used to hold the signs.  Indeed, sometimes the only things left hanging on the chains were the cowbells!

Based on this interview, it appears that DCR thinks that an awareness campaign is the way to go.  Do you really think that an "awareness campaign" will reach those students with U-Hauls every September and June (or the tour bus operators who pass through Boston once or twice in their lives)?  Please don't reinvent the wheel.  Just restore what worked so well for so many years.


massmotorist said...

There's a problem with how people interact with physical infrastructure. An engineer looks at it and asks how he can change the infrastructure to accommodate human nature. A politician looks at it and says human nature should change to accommodate poor engineering, let's blame/punish the individual, and "mistakes happen".

The transportation realm has a lot in common with health care at times.

Bobbie said...

Paul, write this to the Globe, and/or the DCR, and/or the Governor.

Paul Levy said...

The Globe has it. I have reason to believe the DCR has it, too.

Hillary said...

Sounds like there needs to be a serious campaign effort of "stop the stupid".

This story is one of my favorite parts of your book. Thanks for the follow up story - albeit in the wrong direction.

Jim said...

In support of your contention that what happened to the bus driver could happen to anyone, a few years ago I drove under the same useless sign with our bikes upright on the roof of our SUV and came within an inch of tearing them off the roof when driving under the same bridge. We squeaked through but not through any fault of mine.

Pat said...

From Facebook:

You're so right. Yesterday's blog post eye-opening as well. Is the media in Boston picking up on the absurdity?

Jim said...

Where is Bill Geary when we need him? Where is anyone with their brain in the "on" position when we need them? I hope the Dept. of Conservation and Recreation sent a copy of their comments to the injured kids at the hospitals who may be wondering what's really important in Boston.

I drove past the offending sign this morning after dropping my daughter off at her job on Soldiers Field Road. The rubber "low clearance" bar has been restored to its position at the bottom of the chains (but no cow bells.) Case closed?

Joyce said...

I just listened to the NPR segment where the DCR spokesperson said the bells were taken down in 1990. That statement is entirely inaccurate. It sounds like the remarks of an agency caught in an embarrassing situation. I was a planning student at MIT in the late 1990s. After hearing Bill Geary talk about the cowbells on the Memorial Drive underpasses, I went out to take a look at them. The sight of those cowbells would make me chuckle every time I took a run along Mem Drive, well past when I graduated in 2001. And, I've seen them on more recent walks through the city, as I've taken visiting friends and family on tours and talked about the bells.

His story was a powerful example of a good government leader. Clearly, the DCR has lost its way. I would have hoped for better.

hipparchia said...

Just restore what worked so well for so many years.

maybe if y'all were to restore the tax rates and revenues you had in the 1980s you could afford the sign system you had in the 1980s.

Paul Levy said...

They just spent more money on overtime than the signs would have cost.

hipparchia said...

They just spent more money on overtime than the signs would have cost.

well, sure. if only public budgeting were that simple.

details vary by locality, but typically the govt agency draws up a budget [we need $10,000 for cowbells and rubber signs next year] and submits it to the elected politicians [who have all run on a platform of lowering your taxes by slashing govt spending] for final approval. the politicians, true to form, thwack away at the "waste" and the "fat" in the budget, and presto, after a few years there's no more money for spending on cowbells.

an additional complicating factor is that it's generally against the rules for the govt agency to take money out of, say, the salaries-and-benefits cost center, or the vehicle-maintenance cost center, and transfer it to the cowbells-and-rubber-signs cost center.

an interesting [to me] data point would be, at the end of the fiscal year: how many days were the employees furloughed [or vacant positions left unfilled] to make up for the cost over-run from all that overtime?

it's always possible that the career bureaucrats at the govt agency are stupid and venal, but the charts at suggest that what you really need to do, if you want your cowbells back, is raise taxes and elect smarter politicians.