Transportation Engineers Are Ethically Bound to Protect Public Safety. Too Many Do Not.

Transportation engineering practices have produced too many environments that fail to take public safety into account.
Transportation engineering practices have produced too many environments that fail to take public safety into account.

Licensed transportation engineers are supposed to abide by an ethical code of conduct that places the highest priority on public safety. But if you look outside at the closest street, you’ll probably see the result of engineering decisions that are antithetical to protecting people’s lives.

America has built out a transportation system that places people at much greater risk of death and serious injury than in peer countries around the world. In the last two years, the annual death toll has only escalated. The most vulnerable road users — people getting around without a car — account for a disproportionate share of the carnage.

It’s in that context that Bill Schultheiss, a transportation engineer with Toole Design Group, is challenging his profession to uphold its ethical standards.

A 20-year veteran of the field, Schultheiss says transportation engineers are failing to live up to their own codes of ethics. Every state has developed its own ethics code that is supposed to apply to all professionally licensed engineers doing business in that state. All the codes hew to similar principles, like the text below from Indiana, which emphasize public safety and health:

Image: Bill Schultheiss
Image: Bill Schultheiss

We spoke with Schultheiss recently about his concerns with the state of the profession and what needs to change to develop a safe transportation system. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Can you explain your contention that engineers are failing at a key ethical requirement? 

If you look at the history of our profession, we have not fully embraced our number one ethical mandate: to protect the safety, well-being and health of the public.

In the context of what’s out on the ground, it’s quite obvious that we cared more about prioritizing automobile travel. We didn’t think about other people on the road and we didn’t design for them. It’s still part of the profession, that mindset. We spend billions of dollars every year and we’re not addressing the historical legacy of these bad decisions.

By other people, you mean pedestrians?

Mostly people who don’t own a car: transit users, pedestrians, children walking to school, people bicycling, seniors that don’t have access to a car. We’ve created a dangerous environment for them.  We’ve created a major equity problem.

Bill Schultheiss, a professional engineer with the Toole Design Group, says the traffic engineering profession isn't living up to its ideals.
Bill Schultheiss.

I think a lot of people don’t think about these issues. We’ve got disproportionate risk in poor communities where they don’t even have the basic elements to make a safe environment.

I think there’s a civil rights element here that again hasn’t been taken seriously.

Can you provide some real-world examples? 

I think fundamentally we as a society need to look at our funding. It’s screwed up. We’re not honest about the implications of our funding.

We built a car culture, we built this myth that all the highways are paid by the users and we can’t use that money for anything else. The Highway Trust Fund — that’s a problem. I think in the 1950s when we didn’t have a highway system, I could see the logic. But it’s not the 1950s any more and we still have 1950s arguments and strategies.

We’re one of the only countries that has dedicated highway spending. In other countries, it’s just general funds, and you have public conversations about how that money is spent.

What I hear over and over [from other engineers] is we have no money to fix this. We don’t have money to maintain traffic signals, we don’t have money to build sidewalks. It’s a ridiculous statement on its face because we have billions of dollars but we just don’t spend it on those things.

A lot of state DOTs, their mission in their minds is regional mobility, and it comes down to highways and traffic. I’ve been involved with projects where the state DOT will take that money, use it to justify a widening, and feel no obligation to spend it on sidewalks, because that’s a local concern. It’s perverse.

It’s irresponsible and I say it’s unethical. It’s ignoring the impact you have on that environment and that community.

A lot of my colleagues will say their hands are tied because they believe they have no money or support to address these equity issues.

How might this play out on a public street?

I’m on the National Committee [on Uniform Traffic Control Devices] and so I’m involved in writing design guidance [for public roadways]. One thing I tried to do is require pedestrian signals be installed on all traffic signals. That was resisted by some of the state DOTs. They said that’s a local responsibility. Because it costs money and that’s not what they want to spend money on. Even though that’s the right thing to do, they didn’t want to spend money on it and defer it from highways. We know it’s dangerous for pedestrians to not have signals on big roads. I brought up ethics in that discussion and it made people uncomfortable.

People are starting to understand this. A majority of our profession is on board with this, but there are still some powerful people who are not sympathetic to vulnerable people. There was a guy on that committee, I think he should lose his engineering license. His response was like, “Why should we care about pedestrians?”

Some of those kinds of people need to be weeded out of the transportation profession. We’ve been reluctant to challenge them.

The excuse is always in our profession, “Well, we know what the right thing we’re supposed to do is, we don’t have the money.” The bus stop thing [Streetsblog’s Sorriest Bus Stop in America competition] is a perfect example.

How many [transportation agencies] are pointing the finger at the other guy saying, “It’s their job,” but no one’s doing anything about it? We know when things are not safe. We need to do more to talk to people to let them know that these things are not safe — and not just ignore the problem.

Tell us a little about your background.

I’ve been a consulting engineer my entire career, 20 years. I travel throughout the country and I see this everywhere. I go to states where they’re spending a billion on a highway widening where they don’t even have the basic essentials in their community.

Cars can go anywhere. It’s not like we’re missing a network for car travel. We need to finish what we started. We need to make what we have safe for the most vulnerable before building any more.

What gives you hope?

The young people. Almost every young engineer that comes in is really good. I’ve had some people say we just need to wait them out, the older people. The reality is the older people are the ones in power. They’re the ones serving on the chairs of these committees. We’re living with the consequences of the choices they made in their careers. And the average person on the street doesn’t understand this, they’re just getting hurt and killed.

We need to start talking about it and ask the hard questions and challenge people.

  • Greg Riessen

    Hear, hear! When people observe or experience an altercation, near-crash or collision on the road, they always point fingers at the reckless driver or distracted pedestrian. But actually the blame lies with the traffic engineer who designed the road and prioritized speed over safety. When we start holding engineers and their agencies accountable for fatalities, we will get safer roads.

  • bettybarcode

    Proposition: Road designs that endanger everyone outside of motor vehicles are grounds for equal protection lawsuits. My tax dollars are used to build roads & streets that can get me killed.

  • Joe R.

    I only partially agree. Speed isn’t the sole barometer of whether or not a road is safe. Driving training plays a huge part. A given road which might not be safe over 50 mph with typical incompetent American drivers might be very safe at 75 mph with well-trained German drivers. Equipment also has something to do with it. The big, sloppy SUVs and pickups driven by many in this country are frankly unsafe at any speed. A well-designed sedan or sports car is typically much safer.

    In the end, yes, I’ll certain apportion some blame to traffic engineers who design high-speed roads even in places with lots of pedestrians. However, licensing agencies and car manufacturers are just as much to blame. We have virtually no licensing standards. And far too many vehicles not only have poor handling, but they’re grossly overpowered to boot, which makes them even more dangerous. I’d like to see much stricter licensing standards. I’d also like minimum requirements for handling which SUVs will fail, and also maximum power-to-weight ratios for all vehicles.

  • com63

    Even his attitude is a bit close minded: “Mostly people who don’t own a car: transit users, pedestrians, children walking to school, people bicycling, seniors that don’t have access to a car. We’ve created a dangerous environment for them. We’ve created a major equity problem.”
    I own a car, but I also walk a lot. It is not an us versus them thing. Everyone, even car owners, are pedestrians at some point. Drivers need to realize that the pedestrians they see are just the same as them. Today they may be driving, but tomorrow they may be the pedestrian.

  • davistrain

    I’m reminded of the old shout-out to incompetent drivers: “Where did you get your license? In a box of corn flakes?” Of course, any attempt to tighten up licensing requirements would meet opposition from the automobile industry, the fuel suppliers, and the various media (TV with its fantasy motoring commercials, radio news brought by high-end car dealers, and weekend newspapers bulging with car and truck ads.) Many years ago, after hearing reports of all the wonderful railway transit in Germany from colleagues who had been there, I interviewed an official at the (then) West German Consulate General in San Francisco. He told me how driver licensing over there is closer to a private pilot’s license in the US, and that cars were subject to rigorous periodic tests and inspections. Even “cosmetic” faults such as fender dents would have to be fixed. None of these clunkers with primer splotches like you see in the poorer parts of American cities and towns. And after-market parts are strictly regulated–no “low-riders” or other odd mods. No, I’m afraid we Yanks sold our souls to Henry Ford and his successors.

  • Joseph Cutrufo

    We’re great at making roadway departure crashes safer: cut down all the trees, AKA “fixed hazardous objects.” It’s the other crashes they still can’t seem to figure out.

  • rumagin

    Interesting. I didnt read it as an us versus them thing but more as an argument for inclusion of all road users. which seems to be your point anyway

  • TakeFive

    Good grief, I can think of a number of engineering changes that have made roads safer over the decades. There are now medians where none used to exist. In AZ the merge lanes on freeways are long, long and there are little bumps between lanes for drivers that stray. In CO’s western slope, bridges have been added so that larger wildlife like deer, antelope etc can pass under roads as they move from place to place. Then there’s the increasing use of roundabouts, red light cameras, pedestrian countdowns… I could go on and on.

  • Steve Pyburn

    In many cases, my job as a Traffic Engineer (I am licensed to use that title in CA) while working for a major city was to inform decision makers of the consequences of certain decisions. Why do city councils and county supervisors approve subdivision without sidewalks? Why do they fund widening collectors and arterials without bike lanes? Why do they not require developers to build roundabouts instead of signals? The reasons for the safety of the transportation system are varied, and blame is to be shared among a number of stakeholders, including the public. Why do people drive 45 in school zones while texting?

    As a traffic engineer, I see the overwhelming safety benefits of roundabouts. However, many members of the public may not, and there are petitions to prevent or remove roundabouts in some communities. Why? Roundabouts are traffic engineering at its best because they slow cars, simplify decisions for peds, and reduce conflict points. These features reduce fatal and serious injury collisions 75-90%! In addition, we have yet to find any pedestrian fatalities at a roundabout in the US. So why are they being resisted? At new roundabouts, the press may report an increase in non-injury crashes crashes but say nothing of the reduction of fatal crashes and the public thinks, “wow, that’s bad, roundabouts are dangerous.” But signals are more dangerous. Why are the public and local politicians willing to accept fatal crashes at signals when there is a much safer alternative? It is certainly not the fault of the traffic engineer that recommend a roundabout.

  • TakeFive

    Well stated.

  • Stephen Simac

    One aspect of posted speed limits (at least in California) is that infractions can not be enforced unless the speed limit is obeyed by 80% of drivers, (perhaps someone can explain the 80/80 rule better than I can). Thus the futile process of raising the posted speed limit so police can issue tickets for speeding, (sporadically). Eventually enough drivers will exceed the new posted limits until they are no longer enforceable.

  • John K

    Joe, great point re how the Europeans…they are wise and they think strategically about longterm decisions that can increase livability. They spend the time and money to develop safe, separate, enjoyable pathways for active transportation. Unfortunately, in the US we seem to primarily worry about short-term success (annual profit margins, bonuses, etc), and consistent with this is a mindset that getting everywhere as quick as possible is the prime objective, health and safety be darned.

  • Joe R.

    NYC in particular is in love with traffic signals, to the point we have over 12,000 signalized intersections. They make things worse as cars speed to make lights. They add to air pollution when they force vehicles to stop even if nothing is crossing. They make life miserable for cyclists and pedestrians, both of whom might be faced with long red signals every 1 or 2 or 3 blocks. Roadabouts are inherently safe engineering at its finest. They force drivers to slow to non-fatal speeds each and every time. They keep conflicts to a minimum. They avoid the left turn, which is the single most dangerous maneuver. I don’t understand either why they’re not much more heavily used.

  • John K

    Ms. Schmitt and Mr. Schultheiss, thank you for having the courage to elevate such an important and potentially sore topic. I absolutely love the idea of holding professionals accountable to their ethics statements and codes. Truth be told, transportation professionals and common citizens need to do this regularly, because deep down I believe most agree with the thesis. So, therefore we need to have the spine to make sure our actions match our words and beliefs.

    But, there are numerous challenges…this nation desperately needs to slow down. We need to nurture health and fitness for all citizens through policies dominated by active transit. We need to start prioritizing long term smart choices (even if it entails initial discomfort due to new habits and ways of thinking) that will enable coveted awesome livability standards.

    Finally, we need to be much smarter (and ethical) in how we assess the costs and benefits of transportation related choices (which have an enormous impact on so many other aspects of our lives). Case in point: according to the Oregon Department of Transportation youth obesity rates are expected to climb from 27% in 2012 to 49% 2030. This is unacceptable on many scales, and yet what do a majority of the metro areas do? They widen highways to “reduce congestion.” Meanwhile, more people continue to choose the same old single occupant approach to commuting to work, shopping, etc. Furthermore, developers continue to design communities requiring great distances to travel. All of these directly affect the choices the general public makes wrt transit. What are we left with? Imagine the massive costs to society due only to the higher obesity rates, not to mention so many other issues.

    I’m not a transportation professional (yet), but I end with a question that has perplexed me for a while: Why can’t we take a 30-year or longer approach to balancing the community budget. With this approach, I would think the obesity rates–which would have major impacts on community health care costs, etc–would hold a much more significant place in the economics discussion. In fact, I suspect that widening highways would then become an absolute non-starter, especially knowing that highway widening choices produce the opposite effect wrt health and fitness…and happiness. Active Transportation would surely become an economic powerhouse if we tied its products/outcomes to community health performance measures and costs.

    We can then take the captured budget (resulting from less highway widening expense) and spend it on more pedestrian- and active transportation-friendly goals, such as more separated travel ways so families and commuters can actively enjoy their weekend jaunt or trip to/from work. I also think each crosswalk needs two buttons — a pedestrian call out and a “Plus-30 (seconds)” button for elderly or the disabled who need extended time for crossing (this might actually give more of them to have the confidence to use active transportation).

  • Guy Ross

    The article was focus on people outside of cars, not those within. It is spot on.

  • Rich

    Don’t be so sure about roundabouts. We have a lot here in Sydney Australia, admittedly many are poorly designed, but, The Road Rules say “Slow down when approaching a roundabout and give way to vehicles already on the roundabout” The reality is that people speed into them going too fast so cars waiting can’t get in. They seem to think that a certain road has “right of way” into the roundabout.

  • Joe R.

    Those sound like they might be rotaries instead of roundabouts. I can’t tell without seeing any pictures. Rotaries are in fact dangerous and shouldn’t be used any more. A properly designed roundabout is much safer than a signalized intersection.

  • Bernard Finucane

    >Why do people drive 45 in school zones while texting?

    Because the risk of fender benders is too low. People overcompensate for small frequent risks, and undercompensate for large rare risks.

    American traffic engineers seem to measure safety in number of accidents instead of number of deaths and injuries. So deaths an injury counts are high.

  • AndrewReker

    traffic circles is the more international and general term for rotary. Rotary is a regional American term for this design feature.

  • AndrewReker

    …but in many places…those engineering “changes” are not in play because street managers are resistant to put these in … like the article says.

  • Cole Hendrigan

    Somehow the design of our cities (urban design) has been given over serving one type of person: the impatient driver. Were we to actually consider all mode users and build for them, at fractional costs, we may actually build cities of resounding beauty, utility and equality. That is, cities worthy our advanced economic prowess.

    If we wish for X% of trips to be bike trips (say 10%) and 20% of trips to be by walking , then it is incumbent on us (or rather city leaders) to provide 10+20=30% (or whatever) of our transportation budgets on making the urban public realm purposefully designed for these modes. Budget $ for the % target. The per user/mile (or KM) “risk” to cyclists will fall as better facilities are provided, more people use them, and drivers are more aware due to the very visual aspects of the designs.

    In my mind, the ethics question actually fall on citizens to let their elected official know they want safe routes to walk or bike to destinations. Dollars follow votes. Roadway design will follow the dollars.

  • Michael Watters

    Roads are safer. *For cars*. Try getting around on foot or as a cyclist and you’ll quickly feel like a 2nd class citizen.

  • Zach Katz

    > In my mind, the ethics question actually fall on citizens to let their elected official know they want safe routes to walk or bike to destinations. Dollars follow votes. Roadway design will follow the dollars.

    Exactly. I think it’s a PR problem. How can we get the general public to think about how our cities could be better and serve all modes of transport? Some creativity is needed!

  • Peter Lehman

    I have addressed this issue with numerous letters to city and regional officials in my hometown of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, asking “At what point does society become responsible for the safety of cyclists and pedestrians, specifically with respect to infrastructure which not only is not designed to keep them safe but rather seems designed to put them in harms way? When pedestrians and cyclists are in fact killed, whose fault is it, really, if they have been legally required to use infrastructure which was designed in the full knowledge that they were not safe and would be killed? Where are the criminal negligence charges?!?” I had no idea that there was a code anywhere binding engineers to design safe infrastructure or to inform city/regional/state/provincial governments that certain infrastructure design would in fact kill people. It is beyond insane. Let the lawsuits begin.

  • Peter Lehman

    We have numerous roundabouts in the Region of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. They are working well. People who are not comfortable with new ideas have made complaints that they are “confusing”, but really they are not. Yes, you have to pay attention, but only in one direction instead of three. Regardless, the statistics speak for themselves. They simply are safer than “traditional” intersections. Google “Ottawa and Homer Watson” or “Fischer-Hallman Road”. One major complaint I have, as a cyclist, is that the Region of Waterloo has determined that it is wiser for cyclists to leave the road (i.e. the bicycle lanes exit the roadway and join the sidewalks) and this makes it appear that it is not appropriate for cyclists to use the roundabouts. Consequently, and because the speeds are slower anyway, I take the lane, as I am allowed to do here in Ontario. Ironically, there is less chance of being run over when I am directly in front of a driver than there is of being “side-swiped”, regardless of the design of the infrastructure. We also have a new “protected intersection” coming at Erb and King in Waterloo. You might be interested in seeing that, too, if you have never heard of them. My mantra? “Make it safe. Do it now. No excuses. We’re all going to get there, and you will get there before me, so just be patient. Nobody is going to die. Oh, wait, if you are not careful you might kill me. So, tell me again, why was that driver yelling at me again?” Peace. Stay the course!

  • Peter Lehman

    You are correct. We have highway construction like that here in Ontario, Canada, as well. I am thinking specifically of our Highway 400 which has special fencing to allow even ground animals to exit the highway enclosure area but not enter in. There are one-way “cliff” openings in the fence that allow deer to exit the highway enclosure but not enter it either. However, as long as pedestrians and cyclists are required – by law! – to interact with large masses of metal moving at speed which are fatal in the event of a collision, people will continue to be murdered by inappropriate infrastructure design. Yes, “murdered”. Not sure what other word to use.

  • Andrew Plath

    I believe that the biggest thing that has to be changed is attitude. Here in Wausau, we’ve added sharrows and painted bike lanes. It has caused a change in attitudes with many drivers. The attitude and support of transportation planners has lead our elected officials to look at how we support alternative transportation forms. We have a long way to go in education when drivers continue to cut cyclists off.

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