"Safety First": What does it mean?

Michael Le Desma

I hear city planners say that they "put safety first" or that safety is "a priority" but then proceed to actually prioritize other things, like LOS and cost. I'm wondering if there is any published exposition about what it means to actually put safety first, something that is used in the engineering field or that could be borrowed from other fields where risk management is important.


1 comment

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    Charles Marohn

    It is possible to believe you are making things safer and putting safety as a priority while your actions actually run counter to this. Adherents to the forgiving design mentality -- basically anyone using modern traffic engineering as a prism -- believe that providing more buffer room for a drivers provides a margin of safety. They are right on highways and the open road but tragically wrong when that mindset is brought into complex urban environments.

    A couple of articles on this worth reading:

    You are also potentially running into someone's priors (we all have them). When someone says they put safety first, what they are saying is that they put safety at the top of the priority list after all their other priority items are taken care of. That's not wrong -- none of us would spend a trillion dollars making an intersection safe, or ban driving because someone might die, so we all put other things before absolute safety. 

    To get better outcomes, you might find it helpful to enunciate what those priors are and find a way to point out where they are obstacles to the thing you are trying to see (and why that thing is more important). That is what we tried to do with the article Design Speed is a Value Statement. Most engineers are decent human beings who would not prioritize speed over safety, but the standard industry practice does that and so most of them apply these procedures without questioning the underlying values embedded in them. Stating these embedded values out loud is one way to help people in power struggle with the decisions they are making, instead of just going through the motions.


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