The Five Ways Engineers Deflect Criticism

Transportation engineers can be intimidating. They are hard to oppose. When a member of the general public shows up at local meeting to express concern over a project – for example, their quiet local street being widened as if it were a highway – they more often than not find themselves verbally outgunned by the project engineer.

There are a handful of ways engineers deflect criticism. Chief among them is to resort to quoting industry standards. Having a huge budget and all the clout that comes with it doesn’t hurt either. There are, however, a number of reliable threads that I’ve heard engineers use time and again.

This last summer I wrote a series that looked at child pedestrians being killed in automobile collisions, the finale of which included this line:

The engineering profession -- with a growing number of notable exceptions -- employs a systematic approach to design prioritizing the fast and efficient (but not safe) movement of automobiles over everything else. As a general rule, engineers show a conscious indifference to pedestrians and cyclists, misunderstanding their needs where they are not disregarded completely. This is the very definition of gross negligence.

Some engineers on Reddit took exception to this assertion. I’ve gone back over their critiques and identified the five most common lines I’ve heard engineers use to deflect criticism.

1. You don’t have a valid opinion if you’re not a licensed engineer.

Getting an engineering license is not easy. You have to get a rather challenging undergraduate degree, work as in an apprentice role for a number of years and then pass a difficult test. Engineering societies have helped establish and enhance licensing requirements in all fifty states.

There is some logic to this. We certainly want the people who design and build critical infrastructure to know what they are doing. But too often licensing is a way to protect a profession from criticism, stifle dissent and deflect uncomfortable realities. From the Reddit thread:

twinnedcalcite: Not always, a civil engineer could be a urban planner but an urban planner may not be an engineer or architect.

1wiseguy: It's easy to second-guess somebody else's work when you don't actually have to take any responsibility.

Transportation engineering is, as they say, not rocket science. One does not need an engineering license to be taken seriously on any topic that would come before a local elected body.

2. There isn’t enough money to do what should be done.

Project engineers work in a world where there are financial constraints. News flash: most non-engineers do as well. What makes the local municipal engineer different is that their revenue largely comes from the taxpayer. This not only frees them from some of the market constraints others must deal with, it provides a certain level of propaganda value as well.

Engineers commonly play off budget and safety against each other, as if they are two dependent variables on a sliding scale. You can spend more and get more safety or you can spend less and get less safety….the choice is yours. From the Reddit thread:

1wiseguy: Given enough resources, we could greatly improve safety of our streets. We could provide barriers between streets, bike lanes, and sidewalks, and provide pedestrian and bike bridges to avoid crosswalks. We could also slow traffic down arbitrarily to meet whatever safety goal we have in mind. But we don't have enough resources to build those structures, and the citizens don't want to drive slowly. What we have is deemed to be the best solution, barring occasional problems that can be addressed.

Amadeus3698: The money is something over which the engineer has no control; the state/county/city government does. Blaming engineering for fiscal problems caused by elected officials shows a poor understanding of how roads are built. Petition your representatives to fund roads and tragedies like this will go away!

The notion that we are not able to design streets that are safe unless we have bloated budgets is false. That it is widely believed within the engineering profession anyway reveals a lack of innovation and a certain level of myopic comfort engineers wrongly enjoy.

3. We can’t eliminate all risks.

The straw dog argument is standard for anyone proceeding without intellectual rigor. With the odd exception, the public does not have an expectation that all risks can be eliminated. There is an odd incoherence, however, with a profession that designs breakaway poles (they give way when struck by a vehicle) and then place said poles in a sidewalk designed to be used by people outside of a vehicle. Are vehicles leaving the roadway a threat or not?

From the Reddit thread:

bobroberts7441: Any engineer could design a system that is perfectly safe; Nobody would build it. Safety is one of many constraints in any design which must first satisfy feasibility, cost, and functionality. Safety, aesthetics, environmental impact, etc. are all addressed after those are achieved and if a successful accommodation is not reached nothing gets built.

Borgiedude: Cities collect a finite amount of tax that pays for a limited number of roadworks, upgrades and improvements. A council engineer will try and ensure those funds are spent in the way that minimizes the potential loss of life (save the most lives for the least money), but eliminating loss of life is financially impossible.

Transportation engineers go to enormous lengths to improve safety for those operating a vehicle. Asking them to equally consider those not in a vehicle is not asking for all risks to be eliminated. Considering the mismatch of auto versus pedestrian, it’s not even leveling the playing field.

4. It is the politicians that are to blame. Engineers just follow orders.

Oh yes, the Nuremberg defense. I know that characterization offends some of you but, seriously, why do we bother licensing engineers if they are just going to compromise their principles based on what politicians want them to do?

From the Reddit thread:

roger_ranter: Engineering takes the political policies that are handed down, and the public budget that is alotted. Then the engineer has to make do with what he has, designing according to the priorities that are given. This guy is advocating an enormous change in public policy, which is fine. But politicians set policy, and taxpayers pay for it.

Homeworld: He's angry at the consultants, instead of the people that set the public policy and distribute the funding. He should focus on MPOs (Metropolitan Planning Organizations), etc.

Engineers do work in a world that often intersects with politics and public policy, but there are very few instances (although there are a few) where engineers advocate for designs that compromise automobile performance in order to improve overall safety. There are even fewer instances where politicians overrule engineers on safety to in favor of faster speeds.

5. This really is a matter for law enforcement, not engineering.

Engineers are brilliant people capable of solving really complicated problems, even when this involves compensating for human error. The entire concept of forgiving design – where engineers design highways (and too often local streets) to “forgive” the common mistakes drivers make – is just one example.

When most people who drive along a local street exceed the speed limit, how can we call those people deviants? A deviant, by nature, is someone who deviates from the norm. If a high percentage of people are driving faster than what is really safe, it is the street that is giving drivers the wrong signals. It’s safe here….go ahead and drive fast. That’s a design flaw, not a law enforcement problem.

From the Reddit thread:

billywob: Forgive me, but wouldn't increasing the law enforcement help in a lot of these situations? A lot of the discussion seems to be about ensuring that motorists abide by posted speeds, and pedestrians don't make stupid decisions (jaywalking, or running across traffic). I'm all about building better roads and such, however, isn't also effective to post a patrol car or a speed trap to ensure motorists and pedestrians obey the rules of the road?

billywob: It's not bad engineering that is encouraging fast or bad driving, its irresponsible drivers who continually take needless risks to shave half a minute off of their commute. If you establish a constant police presence, drivers will drive more responsibly, and THEN you can see if your road is as efficient as it was designed to be. What is more expensive, paying for a few extra shifts from cops, or building new a road that drivers are going to abuse anyways?

Why should police department budgets be stretched (or city coffers be enhanced by fines) because the engineer has designed the street incorrectly?