Safety and the Quick Fix
A quick fix mentality pervades society. It affects personal expectations, business practices and public policy. Unfortunately, quick fixes often sacrifice long-term progress for short-term results without addressing causes. They may also have unforeseen consequences.
When it comes to safety, simplistic solutions can create new problems.
Zero Tolerance is a popular mantra for dealing with complex problems such as crime, drugs, alcohol and harassment. This approach tends to punish unwanted behavior without considering its causes, the seriousness of the misdeed, or possible undesirable outcomes of the punishment.
In schools, zero tolerance discipline leads to expulsions. A child who inadvertently brings a prohibited item to school could be expelled even if the item presents no real danger. An expelled bully could become a bigger threat outside of the school environment. In such a case, the bully may not be expelled — often forcing the victim to move to another school.
In the wake of a serious incident, the knee-jerk reaction is often to pass a new law. At best, such legislation offers a band-aid solution because it ignores key factors such as enforcement of existing laws, the underlying cause of the incident, or even jurisdiction.
In August 2004, a rollover killed two people who were riding in the back of a pickup truck in The Pas, Manitoba. The driver was charged with two counts of impaired driving causing death and 16 counts of impaired driving causing bodily harm. Manitoba’s Highway Traffic Act requires drivers and passengers to travel in a safe manner. Nonetheless, the government said it would consider legislation that specifically prohibits people from riding in the back of pickup trucks.
Another case in point: an attack by a vicious dog prompts calls for a ban on that breed. Aside from the problem of objective breed identification, breed bans fail to make owners responsible for the behavior of their dogs. Violent or irresponsible individuals who want an aggressive dog will seek out an animal not included in the ban. A preventive approach combines effective animal control measures, responsible owners, reputable breeders and public education, backed up with enforcement and based on reliable data.
In 2000, the maximum sentence for impaired driving causing death increased from 14 years to life in prison. The penalty was toughened despite the fact that the former 14 year maximum had never been used.
Punishment is a necessary response to illegal behavior. However, simply making punishments more and more severe will not in and of itself deter lawbreakers. The certainty — not the severity — of punishment is the critical factor to deter. Moreover, when it comes to sentencing, sanctions which promote rehabilitation may seem lenient, but are often more likely to prevent further offences and thereby protect the public.
Research clearly shows that tough penalties have little preventive value unless they are seen to be enforced. People are less likely to offend when they believe they will be caught, and the most harmful offenders do not believe they will be caught. That is why visible enforcement is critical for safety.
Whether or not a life sentence is ever applied in an impaired driving case, the preventive value of this much-debated amendment to the Criminal Code remains questionable.
Arbitrary quick fixes can have unexpected negative consequences.
Years ago, installing stop signs on side streets seemed like a good way to slow traffic. This measure ignored the fact that the stop sign was intended to control right-of-way. By law, all vehicles, including bicycles, must come to a full stop before proceeding.
In communities where stop signs are used for traffic calming, rolling “stops” have become commonplace. Some drivers simply ignore the stop signs. Cyclists assume the signs do not apply to them. Children have grown up with the behavior model that adults do not stop at stop signs. Using stop signs to slow traffic compromises their effectiveness as a traffic control device.
Traffic calming in general is a quick fix for pedestrian safety. Speed humps, curbs protruding into lanes, street barriers and other traffic calming measures reduce vehicle speeds. However, there is no evidence that they reduce collisions with pedestrians, and they have detrimental ripple effects. They impede and damage emergency vehicles, divert traffic to other streets, and increase harmful emissions. They are also more costly than other measures with proven effectiveness. A study1 concluded that most traffic calming measures waste scarce resources without protecting pedestrians.
By and large, people don’t demand new safety measures until a problem arises. A tragedy can spur emotion-driven demands for changes to prevent similar incidents. Some such changes are well warranted but others do not stand up to objective analysis. Changes made in the name of safety must be based on research, not emotion.
For example, when a child is killed or seriously injured in a school bus crash, a highly charged debate about seat-belts on school buses often ensues. School buses transport almost three million Canadian children a day, traveling millions of kilometers. Statistically, the school bus is the safest way for children to go to school. An average of one child per year dies in a school bus, and that is of great concern. Nonetheless, it’s 16 times safer to ride in a school bus than the family car.
Despite much research, no safety benefit has been proven for seat-belts on school buses. In fact, crash tests have shown they could create more drawbacks than advantages. Almost 40 federal standards apply to school buses, including many passive safety systems. For seat-belts to enhance rider safety, the bus body would have to be completely re-engineered.
How does a quick fix differ from a smart solution? Quick fixes tend to be driven by emotion and political expediency. Most never receive a thorough and objective evaluation, yet may become accepted practices. Many laws that are on the books but not enforced were created as quick fixes.
Smart solutions, on the other hand, aim for long-term improvements. Based on credible research and analysis of the situation as a whole, they take into account human psychology, cost effectiveness and potential impacts.
1. R. Retting et al. A Review of Evidence-Based Traffic Engineering Measures Designed to Reduce Pedestrian-Motor Vehicle Crashes. American Journal of Public Health, Vol 93, No. 9, September 2003.