A New Vision Zero for St. Paul: Part 4 – Education

Engineering was the subject of Part 3 of this series, and of necessity it covered a number of Educational topics in order to explain the need for changes in the way our traffic network is designed. Here in Part 4, Education as one of the “Five Es” – Evaluation, Engineering, Education, Enforcement, and Encouragement – will be explored further.


Vision Zero as an implement of cultural change doesn’t happen without Education. Among all the aspects – the five Es – of Vision Zero, this facet is the most subtle, the most nebulous, and the one without instantly observable metrics and effects. And yet, the success of our physical social network – the roads and ways upon which we travel, commerce, and interact – as well as our ability to build it, depends upon a certain degree of consensus omnium. To make a statement that is more broadly applicable; if everyone simply makes or chooses their own truth, the fabric of society frays quickly.

Sometimes, when having discussions about the potential for education to effect cultural changes through basic understanding of the relevant science and ethics, and thence engineering changes through legislation and construction, I am confronted with some hearty Saint Paul “Can’t Do!” attitude, in which it is asserted that people will never change; so why bother?

This argument raises question in reply, such as: when was the last time you drove drunk? When was the last time a public official advocated a rolling back of DUI laws? In the 1970s, it was widely accepted that people would drive intoxicated, and penalties were virtually nonexistent. But after 1980, steered by the influence of groups like MADD, RID, and SADD, alcohol-related traffic deaths were cut significantly, particularly among the young. Education has been a slow working, but critical component in the long campaign against drunk driving. It led to a culturally accepted Enforcement campaign, and Engineering through laws and, most recently, innovations like Interlock Devices. While drunk driving is still a significant problem, I challenge you to find someone who isn’t academically aware of the effects of alcohol impairment, in contrast to beliefs held even a generation ago. Who, now, would argue for undoing the laws that have saved the lives that have been saved?

  • Human Factors Education.

The education of drivers, legislators, and traffic engineers should incorporate a robust dose of human factors, with basic explanations of the cognitive perception limitations of human beings, as well as the effect of speed on attention areas…similar to the lectures given by my former academic mentor, Dr. Paul Atchley. I encourage you to watch the talk linked below, then perhaps pass it on to a Minnesota state legislator who is lukewarm on cell-phone legislation.

If you don’t want to watch Dr. Atchley (for shame…I loved his class!), then just take the attention test below:

Then, of course, could anyone ethically defend high speed limits, or any speed limit above 25mph in a place where pedestrians are exposed to vehicular traffic if they understood, accepted, and internalized the very real science behind speed, perception, and crash survivability? With a common understanding of the facts, any failure to change is purely an ethical failure, one that cannot be countenanced by a community that claims to value human life above the convenience and pleasure of drivers.

An understanding of human factors and human limitations is something I take very seriously, and is a key component of my education in high performance aircraft. Human beings (myself included) are not evolutionarily equipped to operate fighter aircraft in the manner we do…and yet we do it, often, with an incredibly low mishap rate. (Mishap – not accident – we’ll discuss that later). A significant part of that success is an understanding of our limitations, and training in how to interact with the system in order to overcome and work through those limitations. Additionally, such an understanding carries with it a predilection to caution and care in operations, something that should be better inculcated in the operators of motor vehicles.

  • With Great Power…

While some may bristle at the idea of an ethical component being incorporated into the education of drivers, we perform public ethical education regarding many of our social spheres, so why should driving be any different?

Drivers should be made acutely and painfully aware of the exact nature of the power they wield, and the responsibility that comes with that power. If educated in such a manner, would a driver choose to lean into a cyclist with casual malice and 30,000 ft/lbs of energy, or 15 tons of impact force, just to demonstrate some form of dominance? Would a driver who knew that he or she were commanding the ability to strike with nearly 144,000 ft/lbs of force, (if one were inclined to quantification), which is more than 100x that of a pro boxer, be so inclined to drive fast in pedestrian areas, or muscle crosswalks in order to save 30 seconds? These forces are possessed by a driver in an average car at speeds of 30mph or even less. At highway velocities the forces are stupendous.

If the answer to those questions is “yes”, then we have a considerable amount of ethical education to accomplish, and we, as a community, desperately need to accomplish the ethical education that such power must carry with it. Every person in our transit network bears some measure of responsibility, but the final onus always belongs to power. A pedestrian or a cyclist takes responsibility for his/her own life when embarking on a trip, but the owner of a two-ton lethal weapon takes responsibility for their own life, plus the life of anyone they could kill in a moment of impatience, imprudence, or inattention. Expressed as an equation, the balance of responsibility is quite clear.

As a fighter pilot, this ethical education is a component that is near-and-dear to me. I have wielded terrible power, and was taught that I bear ultimate responsibility for the employment of that power…that the mistakes or missteps of others in no way absolves me of responsibility should my weapons kill friends or the innocent. When you have extraordinary lethal power, you don’t get to make mistakes…you don’t get to have “accidents” a word that will be addressed in the next installment when I discuss Enforcement.

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