Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Tragedy With Two Morals
Several miles from my house is a stretch of road I drive about once a week. At one point along the route there’s a stop sign where you really wouldn’t expect one, at an intersection with a small feeder street that carries very little traffic.
There’s a story behind that.
Back in the late 1980s there was no stop sign at the intersection, but there was a crosswalk across the main road. On a fine May evening, well before sunset, a pedestrian in that crosswalk was struck and killed by a car.
Our newspaper reported the story, and if memory serves, the pedestrian was a child, which added to the sense of shock. The driver failed a sobriety test, was arrested, and subsequently did a stint behind bars. It was one of those random, senseless tragedies that leaves you shaking your head at the sheer awful cussedness of things.
Then came the aftermath. People who lived in the area felt the need to do something, which is a common reaction in such cases. Almost overnight petitions were circulated and presented to the county, asking for a stop sign where the fatality occurred.
County public works staff emphatically recommended against the stop sign, arguing that by every standard of traffic analysis known to man, there was no rationale for one at that location. I was writing editorials at the time, and went out to the scene at the time of day when the pedestrian was killed to see for myself.
Approaching that intersection from the same direction as the driver, I noticed that the sun was behind me and the visibility approaching the intersection was excellent. There was no reason a driver going the speed limit, or even ten miles over, should have had any difficulty seeing a pedestrian and stopping.
A sober driver, that is.
For a day or so I thought of writing an editorial opposing the stop sign, but finally dropped the idea. If you’re going to anger people who are grieving and emotionally aroused, it had better be over something more important than a traffic sign. Apparently feeling the same way, the county Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the sign, and there it is a quarter-century later.
To the best of my knowledge no other pedestrian has been injured or killed in that crosswalk since the stop sign was put up, but then, to the best of my knowledge no one had been injured or killed in that crosswalk before the fatality that led to the installation of the stop sign. If you want to believe that the stop sign has made any positive difference, you pretty much have to take it as an article of faith.
Two morals can be drawn from this story. The first is that in the wake of tragedy people feel an overpowering emotional urge to do something, often unaccompanied by any realistic and analytical appraisal of the effectiveness of that something. The problem was a drunk driver. We’ve tried Prohibition and that didn’t work, and the police can’t catch all the drunk drivers, so let’s put up a stop sign. I have my doubts.
Second, this illustrates the contradictions of democracy. An elected government can’t always be run like a business because it also has to be responsive to the desires of the people, who aren’t always thinking of the bottom line. The neighbors who agitated for that stop sign weren’t doing any cost-benefit analysis, but I believe they were sincere in believing a stop sign would help, and they convinced the elected board. I still don’t think the stop sign is necessary, but I’m grateful to be living in a country where the people can demand and get one.