Seventy-five years ago this week a fire in a Boston nightclub killed 492 people. In 1943 the National Fire Protection Association published a report on the disaster. The NFPA did not call for sweeping new laws. “We cannot believe, however, that this disaster is chargeable to any deficiency in the law.”
The real problem was people who thought the rules didn’t apply to them. The cover sheet of the NFPA report listed three fundamentals of fire safety:
Honest, non-politcal enforcement of building codes and fire laws.
Competent, technically trained enforcement personnel.
Educated public opinion.
Without these fundamentals, laws and codes are wholly ineffective.
If managers and city inspectors had followed established fire safety guidelines, hundreds of people would have lived. The owner wanted to pack more customers in. The owner wanted everybody to use the main entrace and locked the emergency exits. The owner was a friend of the mayor. City inspectors knew they had better not make trouble. I don’t think it was ever established if they were directly ordered to overlook faults in the Cocoanut Grove, or if they knew they would get in trouble for doing their job.
When I read the NFPA report I was struck by the parallels with road policies.
How many times have I seen traffic engineers and their bosses break the rules to do somebody a favor? I can’t count that high. A city councilor who otherwise seemed like an intelligent person told me she voted for unnecessary stop signs — she knew they weren’t needed — as a favor to residents. That wasn’t even ignorance. That was malice.
When the Merritt Parkway was built there was a big tree in the way, an obvious hazard. Luckily for the oak, it had political supporters. The matter went to Governor Cross, who decided the tree should remain. Only after a driver crashed into the tree and died was it removed.
There have been millions of such favors around the country.
Even traffic engineers, supposed to be the “competent, technically trained” personnel, are not familiar with the rules. The average municipal traffic engineer thinks the rule is “anywhere I want a sign, I put a sign.” Even in the state DOT a lot of people aren’t aware of their own sign rules. I’m not talking about arguable judgment calls here, I’m talking about black and white text.
As for educated public opinion, have you ever heard a political activist say she got started as a “stop sign mom”? Quite an admission, being proud that her ignorant meddling might have hurt or killed somebody. But this language works. Most people don’t even associate their own tickets and accidents with the people who make them possible.
That is the attitude we need to change.
There’s an old joke.
Two men are driving a big truck when they come to a bridge with a 5 ton weight limit.
The driver says to the passenger, “what do you think we should do?”
The passenger says, “I don’t see any cops. Go for it.”
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