Part of my job at the Alabama Forestry Association is to help our members make improvements in the “supply chain.” The supply chain includes all the people and steps involved in harvesting and transporting trees and timber to mills where they are processed into the products that you and I use each day.
A major component of the supply chain is road transportation, specifically trucking. I’ve been trying to learn all I can about it, especially about safety and ways to improve it.
I recently took a short course from the Auburn University School of Engineering on “Road Safety Analysis.” The focus of the class was to be able to analyze and process traffic accident data in order to make improvements to the road network (signage, lighting, etc) that could help increase safety and save lives.
I won’t bore you with the details of the class, but I wanted to give you one of the case studies and the discussion that ensued. I think it illustrates the current political climate in the U.S.–the nature of the debate between those who believe that government has the answers to our problems versus those who believe that we as citizens are better able to run our lives.
Keep in mind that I was the only person in the class who was not employed by the government. The others were all state or federal employees.
A city in Florida went through a “beautification program” sometime back. A part of that effort concerned redesigning some of the streets to include more greenery–trees, shrubs, and flowers–the sort of thing, I suppose, intended to make people want to stroll along and shop.
One particular street was modified from four wide lanes of two-way traffic to four narrow lanes with a long island of trees and shrubs in the middle. One side of the street was residential–mostly apartments and multifamily dwellings. The other side was commercial; comprised of small shops, restaurants and bars.
All of this was indeed attractive. The median was thick and lush with greenery–a city block a couple of hundred yards long between the traffic lights with a little oasis in the middle. A great idea at face value: good for business and good for the “planet” (whatever that means).
It didn’t take long for a problem to emerge, however. There were twelve pedestrian fatalities within a fifty yard area of the street in less than a year.
A federal safety team was sent to the city to investigate. They viewed the site, reviewed the police reports, and interviewed store owners and some people on the sidewalks. A pattern quickly became evident.
All of the fatalities were Hispanic men. There was a large community of Hispanic farm-workers living on the residential side of the street. Many were employed in the nearby orange groves, and these workers were all issued uniforms–green uniforms. In the first informal interviews conducted in the neighborhood, the team found that the “official” number of fatalities was probably understated. The police indicated they believed that some potential fatalities had been unreported–physical evidence had been present that families of the victims may have removed the bodies before police arrived.
The federal safety team was gathering some useful information until a resident asked them who they were and what they were doing. When one of the investigators identified himself as being a federal employee, communication stopped. The neighborhood cleared. People went back into their homes. Children left the playground. Doors were locked, curtains closed.
Many of these people were obviously “undocumented”–or illegal, if you prefer.
The safety team was naturally curious about the actual number of unreported fatalities. Since the opportunity for more interviews with residents was over, they located the nearest Catholic church, which happened to be a couple of blocks away. An interview with the priest provided another useful bit of information. He indicated that he had conducted at least six funerals in the last year in which the bodies had been badly traumatized–“like they had been hit by a truck.” The families wouldn’t talk, and he had been left to wonder at the fate of his parishioners.
The safety team surmised that the actual number of fatalities was possibly 18 to 20 in less than a year.
There was one piece of the puzzle left–the “why?” The investigation team came back the next evening to watch the road for clues. The mystery was quickly solved.
The buses carrying workers from the orange groves arrived about six p.m. Soon after, workers crossed the road through the median to a bar on the commercial side of the road. None went down the block to the traffic light–they simply took the shortest route in the middle of the block through the median. A couple of hours later after sunset, the same men crossed back singly or in pairs. Even a casual observer could tell that the drivers and pedestrians couldn’t see each other after dark.
The instructor asked for potential solutions to the problem. I sat quietly and listened to the proposals from my fellow students (remember, they all work for government agencies):
“We need to canvas the neighborhood. Go door to door and hand out fliers. Have a ‘town hall’ meeting to discuss the problem. We should educate the Hispanics that we cross at the traffic light in this country.”
Instructor: “Won’t work. They don’t trust you. They are afraid of being deported.”
“How about an educational program at school? We develop training materials for the children, who will go home and discuss what they have learned with their parents.”
Instructor: “Not bad, but that would take a long time. Eighteen people have already been killed in less than a year.”
“How about doing the educational program through the church?”
Instructor: “Again, they don’t trust you. If they didn’t trust the priest enough to tell him what happened to their loved ones, what makes you think they will listen to you?”
The class fell silent. The instructor waited. I tried to be quiet, but that’s not my strong suit.
“How about we cut down the trees down and get some lights put up? Plant some flowers or low-growing vegetation, but the rest has to go.”
The instructor laughed. “I thought you were a tree man.”
“I am. But no stupid beautification project is worth a human life.”
He laughed again.
That is exactly what the city did–along with some additional lighting and a couple of signs.
Now lest you misunderstand me, let me make something very clear. My recounting this story is not an attempt to make anyone look stupid or me look smart. It is simply a juxtaposition of two ways of looking at a problem. The students who were government workers thought in terms of government solutions. They were sincere in their belief that “programs” could solve the problem. They had no hidden agenda, and I really believe they thought their solutions would be effective.
My belief is that programs take time and cost lots of money. Our country doesn’t have a surplus of either. I believe that direct approaches are better.
This is the true nature of the political debate in the U.S. today in the simplest of terms. Throw out all the labels, all the rhetoric, all the name-calling and political spin and you are left with one simple question: “who do I believe is best able to run my life?”
I hope you think it’s you. I do.