By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist
Every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. — Dr. Laurence J. Peter
Standards and You
Imagine you bought some land in the country. It’s beautiful — right on the water — if a bit rocky. The inspector says it’s probably not buildable and you need a site plan sealed by an engineer. So you hire an engineer, tell him how important your dream house is, and get back a report:
The property consists of 3 acres. Of that two acres is wetlands or within the 100 year flood plain. Another half acre is ledge. I conducted a perc test on the remaining half acre. Thin topsoil was underlain by clay. Test holes drained about 1 inch in four hours of observation. The owner requires a three bedroom house. Due to lack of sewer service a septic field of 450 gallons per day capacity is required. It is recommended that the attached site plan be approved for a three bedroom house with septic field.
Happy now? Do you like raw sewage in your basement and a polluted lake? Most building codes says a septic field has to drain faster than 1 inch per hour and can’t be built over clay. Your engineer wrote the magic words to get you the permit you wanted, and the average person wouldn’t see what was wrong.
In civil engineering that report would be gross misconduct. In traffic engineering that level of incompetence is standard.
An NMA member in Florida spent over a decade fighting his homeowner’s association over nuisance all way stop signs. They were nuisance signs because there was no safety problem and no traffic problem. They were posted only because the HOA board liked stop signs.
The sheriff wouldn’t enforce the stop signs unless a professional engineer signed off on them. “HOA wants stop signs” is not on the list of legitimate reasons for stop signs in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). No reputable engineer should have approved them. But one engineer did.
The HOA board bought an engineering study, much like you can order a “college” degree from a diploma mill. The engineer wrote a letter saying the intersections (which he had never seen) needed stop signs.
Later, the following appeared in an official publication:
The licensee was charged with misconduct for expressing an opinion publicly on an engineering subject without being informed as to the facts relating thereto and being competent to form an opinion thereupon. By letters dated July 2, 1997 and August 27, 1997, the licensee certified that the traffic control devices in place at Frenchmen’s Landing, specifically the four all-way stop signs, were in conformance with the MUTCD. None of the intersections in Frenchmen’s Landing which have all-way stop signs warrant the stop signs based on the warrants published in the MUTCD.
The licensee entered into a Settlement Stipulation with FEMC for a $1,000 fine, an appearance before the Board, a one-year probation term with completion of the Board’s Study Guide.
In other words, the engineer was fined, reprimanded, put on probation, and told to study harder.
Another story out of Florida landed in my inbox recently. A resident complained that the 35 mph speed limit on his street, John Anderson Drive in Ormond-by-the-Sea, was higher than he liked. Volusia County sent an engineer to take a look.
The study noted road conditions (narrow but with good sight distance), deputies’ opinions (they wanted a lower speed limit), traffic volume (vehicular volume typical for a collector, pedestrians sometimes present), and accidents (some, but no finding of an unusual number). The 85th percentile speed was 40 mph. The study quoted the Florida DOT manual’s explanation why speed limits should be near the 85th percentile speed of free-flowing traffic (i.e. slightly above the average speed).
After reciting these facts, the report recommended reducing the speed limit to 30. On that page was the professional engineer’s seal.
That is professional misconduct.
The facts supported a 40 mph speed limit and conclusively ruled out a 30 mph limit.
Under Florida DOT rules, which the report acknowledged were binding, it is forbidden to reduce a speed limit to more than 8 mph below the 85th percentile speed. Speed limits are supposed to be consistent with traffic conditions. Residents and deputies wanted a speed trap instead.
The engineer’s disagreement with the rules is no more of an excuse than your opinion that the state speed limit should be 75 instead of 70. Good idea or bad idea, you don’t write traffic law and he doesn’t set professional standards. If you can get fined for violating a bad speed limit, he should get fined for creating a bad speed limit.
What we have here is a variant on the “Peter principle” (people tend to be promoted into jobs they are bad at). There are plenty of engineers who can follow the rules. But job assignments are based on giving bosses what they want. The stop sign lover is put in charge of approving stop signs. The stop sign hater gets to design culverts.
That is why the Frenchmen’s Landing stop signs and Volusia County speed limit are not aberrations. They are business as usual.
Ideally, the state DOT would enforce rules and the federal DOT would back up the state. In practice DOT officials would rather have you get rear ended by an 18-wheeler than risk a politician’s temper tantrum over a disapproved stop sign.
Something You Can Do
Since the responsible parties have abdicated, America needs more ordinary citizens who can turn a vague complaint like “there are too many new stop signs” into something actionable like “the county’s new engineer violates state rules.”
In some states you can call in the authorities. Not the useless patronage hires at the state DOT. The professional licensing board.
There is a tradition of meddling with DOT policy. Everybody knows signs are simple, and the DOT can give you signs.
There isn’t the same culture of political interference with professional licensing. Everybody knows engineering, medicine, and so forth are complicated. You wouldn’t tell a doctor what size scalpel to use.
When Florida DOT and the local prosecutor refused to get involved with the illegal Frenchmen’s Landing stop signs, the professionals at FEMC did their job. Their job isn’t removing nuisance stop signs. Their job is removing the engineers who create them.
Can you show that the bad sign down the road is not just a bad sign, but a violation of standards? Can you track down the so-called professional engineer who signed off on it? Can you get an engineer who doesn’t have to answer to the mayor to back you up? The professional engineer licensing board is waiting to hear from you.
Is There an Investigative Reporter in the House?
You can also try public shaming.
Show a reporter that every new traffic sign breaks the rules. You will have to explain why the rules exist, and that they really are rules rather than polite suggestions like the DPW commissioner says. The engineer will make an excuse that this intersection is bad, and so is that one, and the next. You’ll point out, isn’t it strange that every single intersection in town is below average?
Be patient. Most pro-motorist exposés get killed or edited to be unrecognizable.
Eventually the reporter may become curious enough to go beyond quoting spokesmen and learn about the subject. I’d love to see an aggressive reporter ask a DPW official why he endangered children’s lives by posting unwarranted stop signs, which are known to increase traffic speed and crash rates.