I sat about 12 cars back from the intersection, in the middle of a line of stopped vehicles, wondering “what happened ahead of me, was everyone alright, what if I had left work 15 seconds earlier today?” I texted my wife while parked… “gonna be a little while, looks like a bad accident at Oakridge and CB.” And then I searched in my head for the right word… ironic? destiny? tragic? prophetic? I couldn’t settle on one. I wanted to convey how disappointed I felt that just days earlier a neighbor had posted a petition on Change.org to show the local town and county leaders that their residents wanted this intersection improved with traffic controls. And then I thought the worst: “I hope no one had to die today in order to prove the point that this was a dangerous intersection.”
Unfortunately someone did die in that accident. And two people suffered severe injuries in the other vehicle. And it isn’t the first death or serious injury at that intersection. One petition signer comments that there were 3 deaths in the past 9 years. And accident records another neighbor obtained from the Sheriff’s department showed 23 accidents in the past 3 years. It is a 2-way stop, with several turn lanes to add complexity, and visibility in some directions is poor due to a small hill just before the intersection on the south side.
I myself signed the online petition just days before the fatal accident occurred. In my comments, I stated that “Of all the intersections I drive through, this is the one where I see the most near-misses…” The owner of the petition mentioned that he started it because “A representative from the county told me that in addition to the technical analysis of the intersection, the thoughts and opinions of residents and neighbors can be valuable when it comes to justifying upgrades.”
Later on our local TV news sites, I saw comments from the sheriff’s department and from County Highway Commissioner Ernest Winters. Surely they would call out how tragic this was and how something needed to be done to improve safety at this intersection. With all the angst shown in comments of people who signed the petition, I assumed they knew all about this intersection and wanted something done. But that’s not what I heard. I heard “people just have to drive more carefully” and “frankly, it doesn’t meet our thresholds for accidents”. How insensitive. How short-sighted. How terrible for the next person who gets in an accident there.
My first question was, are these bad people who are in charge? Probably not, not really. Do they have an inadequate process to use when it comes to identifying, studying, designing, and implementing change? Well, it is the government…. so, probably. I set out to get more information, and began to dig into meeting minutes from my Town website. From there I saw more names and committees, and checked out their minutes on the County website. My original goal was to paint a picture of this intersection vs other intersections discussed for safety, and see if it was an outlier for action not being taken, or if that was a common occurrence in the town, the county, or other towns and counties in Wisconsin. I was not able to get to that level of detail with other intersections yet. But what I did find was a disappointing story told over several years of bringing up the problem and brushing it aside because it did not meet thresholds: brushing aside studies due to cost, brushing aside calls for action by the Town, and a lot of back and forth between committees. Here are a few highlights:
- “There are significant traffic concerns at… CB and Oakridge” (Jan 2013)
- He stated that “while safety is very important, the purpose of an arterial is to move traffic, not stop frequently” (Mar 2013)
- “One possible solution would be to temporarily install stop signs and program the installation of a roundabout for the future” (Sep 2014)
- Listed in minutes as #3 on “Most dangerous intersections in Winnebago County” (Jan 2015)
- “Supervisor Egan stated that this committee is responsible for the safety of the traveling public” (Jun 2015)
- “The speed spy findings were that speed is not an issue and this is not considered a dangerous intersection” (Jun 2015)
- “Supervisor Albrecht stated he thinks this committee must take the approach that something has to be done at this intersection” (Jul 2015)
One of the most disheartening things I saw was the publication of the March 7th Highway Committee meeting minutes, the Monday after the fatal accident. The intersection was not on the agenda, and from the minutes, it was not discussed. Looking ahead, it appears to be on the March 21st agenda. Can you imagine a manufacturing company waiting two weeks to discuss a fatality in one of its facilities and what should be done about it? OSHA would come down upon them like a sledgehammer.
It was disappointing, yes. And it may not be uncommon at all, I cannot comment on that yet. But what I do see are several major process deficiencies. First, the metrics they use for triggering action are clearly inadequate when viewed from the standpoint of improving safety. The metrics mentioned include traffic volume, speed of vehicles, and accident rate. What I don’t see are metrics related to the severity of accidents, the complexity of the intersection in terms of numbers of lanes, sight paths and visibility concerns, anything related to “near-misses” (almost an accident but avoided), a lack of clarity for what the path to improvement is at the resident, town, and county levels, and a meeting cadence that does not support effectiveness or efficiency. And I think the most important information they were lacking was the voice of the people who drive through that intersection every day. In addition, the design of the intersection did not appear to be listed as a potential factor, rather “driver error” is constantly cited by those county leaders. I’m going to delve deeper into a few of these items.
I’m lucky enough to work at a company that takes safety very seriously, and I’ve also been lucky enough to have been trained and been involved in our safety programs over the years. One key mentality that has been present there as long as I have been employed is the concept of the safety pyramid. At the top of the pyramid is injuries. Next on the list are accidents (that don’t meet the company or OSHA thresholds for reportable injuries). And on the bottom of the pyramid are near misses and unsafe behaviors. Addressing causes that are found towards the bottom of the pyramid would be proactive work to prevent injuries from occurring in the first place, while the closer you are to the top of the pyramid, the more you are working with reactive metrics.
The theory behind the pyramid, which makes plenty of logical sense, is that for every injury you have, you have likely seen a number of accidents, and on top of that, you are even more likely to have seen an even larger number of near misses. In addition, if you have lots of near misses and lots of accidents, but haven’t had an “injury” recently… There’s a high probability you’ve simply been lucky lately and are about to have one. It can be summed up simply as “where there’s smoke there’s fire”.
For the Oakridge/CB intersection, I know from personal experience that near misses have occurred. I have been in a car that had to swerve around someone who darted out into the intersection too early. I’ve slammed on the brakes at least 3 times in recent memory. My wife tells me about near misses she has. My neighbor, living nearby for only a year, says his wife has already had two close calls. When I read through the comments of those who signed the petition, many more personal experiences are described. So… why doesn’t this drive action? As you read through them, you ask, how can anyone not think and know this is a dangerous intersection?
Now it is time for personal reflection. How many times have I ever taken the time to call in anywhere and comment to anyone that I felt there was a dangerous intersection present? Never. How about my wife? Never. How about my friend’s wife? Never. How about my friend who was driving us all back from lunch one day to work? Nope. Have there been people who call in? Sure, a few, one person I know says he calls the commissioner once or twice a year (and hears the same rhetoric again and again) But I’m guessing the switchboard wasn’t exactly lighting up at the county highway commission for the past 3 years.
So why not? Why don’t people call in and report it? First… Do I know they want feedback? Do they ever ask, or communicate, or seek it out? Any signs advertising a request for reporting? Second.. Do I know who to call? Town? County? Other county committees? State? All of them? Third… Is it easy? Is there an Internet form to fill out? Is there a phone tree choice? Can I get it done in a few minutes or will it take an hour each time? Fourth… Is my feedback welcomed with open arms and thanks? Or is it met with skepticism, political rhetoric, and disdain? Fifth… Do they do something with the information? Do they use it to drive change? Or will it just sit and gather digital dust?
These feel like key criteria of a process to gather critical information from the public to help predict where accidents may occur and where to spend our resources. And the data produced by such a system should be richer and more valuable than a byline on accident statistics. This is a critical juncture in this discussion – what should the strategy be for counties to make improvements? Do you want to wait for accidents and deaths to occur to tell you where to spend your resources, and be a reactive organization? Or do you want to identify, cultivate, and data mine predictive measures that help you identify problems before someone is critically injured, or even dies? The second method is harder. The second method takes more processes, systems, and analysis. And in a way, you are still guessing at the highest priorities – you just hope them to be well informed decisions, and better than you would have made without the information. But the second method prevents injuries.
Is it so hard to predict the future?
Predicting the Future and Crowdsourcing
We recently had a speaker address a large group at my company. The speaker’s title was a “futurist”, from the firm Ogilvy and Mather. What does a futurist do you ask? Well… They are paid to predict the future. Where will trends go? Where will people spend money? What technologies will the future embrace, and which will they discard? She gave a wonderful and thought provoking speech on millennials and the trends associated with the younger generation. Things I had never thought about and didn’t know about the behaviors and habits of the younger generation wowed me, interested me, and made me think about how we would need to adapt and adopt over time.
In the Q&A afterwards, someone praised her knowledge and then asked a great question. “How do you predict the future, what is your process?” So she told us. A bulletin board and push pins. There it was, amazing cutting edge technology, used to predict the trends of the future. She said they simply monitor social media and news stories for things that are trending and that invoke ideas different than the current norm. Then they print them out, and pin them up on a bulletin board. When you start to see a big cluster, there’s a good chance there is a trend there. Where there’s smoke there’s fire.
Do I expect our Wisconsin County and Town government committees to be on the cutting edge of technology? No. Simply put, no. OK, so they aren’t going to set the direction the rest of the country will follow. But is anyone out there living this future already?
I did a search for crowdsourcing intersection safety. Several states and cities came up. But it is not necessarily driven by vehicle safety. The main driver appears to be for bicycling and pedestrian safety. In many applications you can add a location where traffic was going too fast, almost hit by a car, tough to turn due to visibility, etc. You can drop a pin and leave information on the map for others to see. From what I have read, users of the maps can check their planned route for areas to avoid, and reroute accordingly for a safer ride or commute. A noble use, but not likely something that will change driver behavior. And it won’t get after the root cause of why an area of road is not safe, it just removes you (if you use it) from the danger; you avoid it. Until you forget. Or are in a hurry and plan a shortcut. Or you are new to the area and you don’t even know an unsafe condition exists.
These type of maps can add visibility to and greatly enhance the story of where local government can take action, and can help speed up decision making. Think about it – which of these two maps is likely to drive you to action and help tell you where to apply your resources? The one with just a few accidents located at various points? Or the one with several clusters of near misses? Or from another standpoint, the near miss data can complement your accident data and help you prioritize. More data helps you look with your eyes wide open, instead of with blinders on.
Here are a few of the areas and websites connected to the crowdsourcing for better safety near miss data concept. BikeMaps.org states it is a “Global Tool for Collision and Near-Miss Mapping”. New York had a map open for public comments as part of their Vision Zero initiative. The Oregon Dept. of Transportation initiated a study on the use of crowdsourcing as a data collection method. Seattle requested residents to help them identify unsafe spots near school. Washington DC has a map as part of their Vision Zero initiative. Microsoft is also “testing predictive intelligence, developing software to analyze video footage, and writing algorithms to look for potential collisions and near misses in order to identify dangerous intersections and roads.”
Here’s the rub. You can have all the data you want in the world, making problems visible to you, your committees, the public… You can produce graphics, print and bind reports, distribute them electronically, via snail mail, hand out flyers in front of Starbucks, get airtime during the news… Not one shred of it will matter a lick if no one is prepared to use it. If no one agrees that action is needed. If no one can make action happen. If no one cares.
The Process of Improvement
Ok. So now we have made the case that data is useful, and we have gathered some good data. And we want to take action. What next?
Here’s what I gleaned from the meeting minutes. Sometimes residents call in to complain. Sometimes they call the county, sometimes their town or city leaders. Sometimes an accident or fatality triggers a discussion in a meeting. Committee/Board members ask for more data. Were there any old studies? Should we do a new study? Who will pay for it? Many different towns use this road. Do they all support any changes? We should ask them. What did the speed study say? It doesn’t meet our criteria? Let’s just keep an eye on it for a couple of years, see if the problems come back or go away. Let’s take this up to the board meeting. Board meeting members want more information. A month later information comes back. Is there state funding available? We need a study for that. Let’s do one. Come back another time with estimates for the study. The study costs too much. I don’t think it is a dangerous intersection. Something should be done, but not a roundabout, it isn’t justified. Let’s do a study to see our other options. Send it back to committee to investigate further.
The pathway is not clear. Clearly.
Meanwhile… Nothing has happened. No design has been created. No study has been done. No funds have been requested. If people ran their businesses this way… My logical mind is frustrated. Enough people have called it a problem that it is clearly a problem. But Patrick you say, this is how government works, this is how our great country was founded, get used to it. Bullshit. I refuse to accept that ineffectiveness should be the norm, or that history says America is great because of our government inefficiencies. How does that sound rolling off a candidate’s tongue?
There needs to be vision at all levels of government to make safety a priority. I really like this article about Boston’s Vision Zero program, and the listing of its 6 key principles, especially numbers 1, 2, 3, and 6.
- Traffic deaths are preventable and unacceptable
- Human life takes priority over mobility and other objectives of the road system. The street system should be safe for all users, for all modes of transportation, in all communities, and for people of all ages and abilities.
- Human error is inevitable and unpredictable; the transportation system should be designed to anticipate error so the consequence is not severe injury or death.
- People are inherently vulnerable and speed is a fundamental predictor of crash survival. The transportation system should be designed for speeds that protect human life.
- Safe human behaviors, education, and enforcement are essential contributors to a safe system.
- Policies at all levels of government need to align with making safety the highest priority for roadways
Imagine if there was the vision for Wisconsin to have zero deaths on our roadways, and it was made a priority. We averaged 509 fatalities per year (2009-13). Winnebago County itself averages 9 per year (2011-15) And we know to make improvement happen we are going to need resources – money, skilled people, time. So, we set aside these resources each year and give them the mission to make as much improvement happen as possible. I think the first item on the agenda might be to create action plans for the “5 most dangerous intersections in the county”. And there should be a clear weekly update on progress and obstacles. And there should be accountability – someone checking to ensure they are staying on track, that they have the resources they need, and helping to remove obstacles for the team. (Does this sound like a lean management system with a true north and leader standard work? Shocking that I would suggest that, I know) And there should be someone helping the team drive improvement to the processes they use to go after that most precious of resources – time waste. Like the cadence and connection of meetings.
Here’s what I found when I looked at the calendar for upcoming town and county meetings. (Accident occurred March 4th) Next town board meeting March 14th (Every 2 weeks). Next highway committee meeting was listed for May 4th. Just now I saw an extra one added for March 21st, and the intersection is on the agenda). Next County board meeting April 26th… I’m sure that action happens outside of these meetings. But from the minutes, it seems like those meetings are where decisions are made. At this rate, I’m sure funds won’t be authorized for a study again until June! Here’s the thing. If you wanted action to occur on a priority I’m guessing they could do design and installation beginning in a month, if you cleared the slate of work for capable people and made it their only task.
Ok. So now we have figured out how to make problems visible. And we have figured out how we are going to take action against those problems. How do we decide what countermeasures to put in place? For the Oakridge CB intersection, the discussion always comes down to a few options: stop signs, traffic signals, reduce the speed limit, cut down the hill for visibility, and of course, the ever-polarizing roundabout option.
Half of the time spent discussing the intersection in committee meetings is around what countermeasure to put in. And some of the studies discussed (that never happened) were to help with a recommendation for which one to do. Here’s the thing: if your mission is to drive closer to zero deaths, the choice is clear. Roundabouts.
Here’s the kicker(s). They are sometimes more expensive than the other options. They are unpopular with many people. Why? Because people think it slows them down. Because they argue that accidents still occur. And that’s true. But roundabouts were not designed to prevent accidents from occurring. They were designed to reduce the severity of accidents, so that you only go home with a fender bender instead of a date with an emergency room doctor.
The Federal Highway Administration has an excellent page describing the benefits of roundabouts. There is a plethora of available studies and information listed in their references section. There are a lot of relevant quotes. Here’s one of my favorites:
Most significantly, roundabouts REDUCE the types of crashes where people are seriously hurt or killed by 78-82% when compared to conventional stop-controlled and signalized intersections
They are not the be-all end-all solution. Bad accidents can still occur with a roundabout in place. But we are a long way yet from universal self driving cars that merge into traffic and avoid collisions with each other. (And even then Tom Cruise can still screw up your day). Until that day comes in Winnebago County Wisconsin, I suggest we stick with the best way we know today to prevent deaths and severe accidents, the roundabout.
This brings us back to the other kicker. Roundabouts are sometimes more expensive than other, less safe options. I’ve offered a lot of criticism and improvement ideas for the government. Yes they make the decisions. And yes they control the money. But what do we the people say when they raise our taxes? We raise hell. We tell them we’re going to elect someone else to do their job that won’t raise taxes. We ask for cheaper solutions. The fact is, we cannot have it both ways. We cannot drive to zero deaths without making a commitment to that vision ourselves. You want safer roads? You must be willing to tell our government leaders that you are willing to pay for it. Now, transparency and communication from the government, especially around trade offs, would help greatly in these situations and discussions on funding. But you cannot have the improvement you want without the support of the people.
There are many root causes at play in this failure, this travesty. And not all can be fixed by one person, one committee, one county, or one Town. And it cannot be fixed simply by changing those who are in office and who make the decisions. It will take time and effort to improve those processes. But it can be done, no question. There is room for improvement here, they have not hit their limit of what is possible and practical. But I’m guessing there will not be a champion who steps up to take it forward.
At the beginning of this post I stated that I had texted my wife about the accident. While I was sitting there, I leaned over and saw that one of the vehicles was a gray minivan. I looked at the window profile, and noticed it might be a Sienna. And I hoped…. hoped… hoped… for a quick text reply from my wife. I was getting anxious, getting ready to get out and run up and see, getting ready to call instead of text… Luckily a text came back.
But someone else wasn’t so lucky. Someone’s daughter died that day, someone’s friend, someone’s co-worker. And in the other vehicle, someone’s father is still in the hospital nearly 2 weeks later, and someone’s mother cannot get around without assistance yet. Thank goodness their two young kids were ok. But life as they know it has now changed immeasurably.
How many deaths, how many severe injuries must occur before someone triggers change? 4? 7? 14? How dare anyone even put a number to it. I submit that no more accidents, no more deaths need to occur, the path forward is clear. Nothing should be prioritized above safety, especially not “traffic flow in an arterial”. How fast you can get home from work or school doesn’t matter if there’s a chance you won’t make it home at all. Your parents won’t care. Your children won’t care. Your spouse won’t care. They will just look at the empty spots in their home and wonder why their loved one was taken from them. It’s not because it was their time, or because it was God’s will, or any other belief you have about destiny and inevitability. It is because people and processes didn’t work as well and as hard as they could and should to prevent it from happening.
One accident more is one too many.