Absence of ethics

In 1979 an engineer got a phone call and was persuaded to violate professional standards. By his bad luck he isn’t remembered as “a guy who approved a nuisance stop sign” but “the guy they teach college students not to be like.”

According to the code of ethics for professional engineers, engineers “shall approve only those engineering documents that are in conformity with applicable standards.”

That phone call was a request for a favor that would make somebody else’s life easier. But it wasn’t in conformity with applicable standards.

The resulting structural failure killed 114 people. That was enough to wake up regulators, who revoked several licenses, and lawyers, whose clients got nine figures in payments.

I wasn’t exaggerating when I said they teach students not to be that guy. The Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkway collapse is taught in college. The responsible engineer spent the rest of his life giving speeches warning people not to repeat his mistake.

But that’s because there were front page headlines around the country. That’s not the normal response to misconduct. I know because most of the time when I go looking at the “engineering” behind traffic regulation, I find violations.

When a police chief or city councilor calls asking for a stop sign, many engineers don’t even look up the applicable standards, contrary to the ethical duty to “perform services only in areas of their competence.” Most of those who do then make excuses for ignoring the standards. Same with speed limits. If they want to do the right thing there’s an unrecorded visit or phone call, and they commit professional misconduct to avoid another fight with the boss.

In many states it’s illegal for “the boss” in an engineering firm to be anybody other than a licensed engineer. Technically a middle manager could be some guy off the street, but the firm has to be owned and controlled by licensed professionals. Lawyers and doctors are subject to a similar rule.

But government isn’t like that. The boss is a politician, and in smaller cities there may not be a professional involved in traffic control decisions. Inside or outside of government, regulators aren’t very interested in enforcing rules against unlicensed practice of engineering.

A report on the Hyatt walkway collapse speculated about why engineers avoided doing their job right, and commented

These reasons do not, however, fall within acceptable standards of
engineering professional conduct. Instead, they pave the way for
legitimate charges of negligence, incompetence, misconduct, and
unprofessional conduct in the practice of engineering.

The professional engineering exam is open book for a reason. I once had a book that was mostly formulas and graphs for structural steel, more odd geometries than any one person would see in a lifetime. It’s more important to know how to find the right answer than it is to have the formula memorized.

Most of the time structural engineers look up the answer. Most of the time traffic engineers don’t know where the answer is or don’t care what it is.

They should put a stop sign warrant analysis on the PE exam.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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