This is a guest post from Bevan Woodward

Recently I lodged a complaint with Engineering NZ relating to the common practice of road engineers who trade-off the safety of pedestrians to avoid minor inconvenience for motorists. I believe that such practice contravenes the Engineering NZ’s Code of Ethical Conduct which requires all members to “take reasonable steps to safeguard the health and safety of people.”

The details of my complaint are here.

In a nutshell, the road engineer in question has developed the “Australasian Pedestrian Crossing Facility Selection Web Tool 1 ” which is a spreadsheet that explicitly trades off safety for pedestrians against minor (and inconsequential) travel time delays for motorists.

The end result is that:

  1. pedestrian crossing facilities are typically given very poor (typically negative) Benefit Cost Ratios, meaning new pedestrian costing are unlikely to be approved for funding, and
  2. the tool favours pedestrian crossing facilities that provide poor levels of service for pedestrians, eg: refuge islands, as these do not cause delay for motorists.

This tool is distributed by NZTA to all Councils for their use.

The initial feedback from Engineering NZ is that this complaint is too hot for them to handle, and could I take it to Austroads or NZTA instead. I have refused, as I believe Engineering NZ is the proper forum and I make no apologies about this being a sizable issue which will cause discomfort for many road engineers.

UPDATE: The Transportation Group National Committee, a subgroup of ENZ, has informed us that they are considering Bevan’s complaint, and are not ignoring or dismissing it.

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60 comments

    1. And greater weight to pedestrian delays. One person in a vehicle delayed 2 sec is worth far more than one pedestrian delayed 23 sec. That doesn’t sound right.

      1. Needs to be reversed to give effect to the GPS. One of many examples:

        “The increased focus on urban areas is to ensure that transport and land use planning reduces the need to travel by private motor vehicle (excluding commercial vehicles) by:
        –supporting a mode shift for trips in urban areas from private vehicles to more efficient, low cost modes like walking, cycling and public transport.”

        The layers of bias are thick.

      2. That’s not what it says, the cost per ped/motorist is multiplied by the number of each. In this example there are a lot more motorists than peds.

        1. The 23 sec delay is the average for this specific example, it’s not a constant. If there is less traffic the average delay will be less, and vice versa.

  1. Looks like there is a serious coding error in that web tool to arrive at such outlandish results. It doesnt appear to require any complex code for what looks like a menial calculation. Why not just develop a corrected web tool that gives greater weight to the pedestrian safety?

      1. Why does the tool’s default setting specifically trade-off pedestrian safety against minor inconvenience for motorists?

        What other sector in New Zealand is able to take such a blatant disregard to safety?

      2. An appropriate tool would put together a set of inputs to the next decision, Glen, not combine the various factors in a quasi-scientific way. This decision would then be made at a qualitative level and in a way that shows the value judgements transparently.

        It would also be using both pedestrian and traffic numbers based on what should be possible for the area, were speeds, designs, devices, regulations, pricing and road user culture not set up to create mode bias.

        Had this tool been appropriately applied, as you undoubtedly do, and as the engineer who authored it undoubtedly intended, and if all the other similar substandard measures that are rife throughout the design guides and protocols were applied appropriately by all engineers, we would not now have such a dire walking environment where mothers like in the pictures of this post are having to dodge traffic and wait with very young children on insufficiently large ‘refuges’.

  2. I’m pleased to see this, Bevan. There are many systematic barriers to safety like this, and the people responsible for them need to start understanding their role in unnecessary road trauma. Engineering NZ probably needs to run some courses on how to “take reasonable steps to safeguard the health and safety of people” both for new engineers. For engineers already in practice in the transport field, perhaps an audit should be done, which could provide the material for all professional development until we have a safe system.

    1. Because people in Auckland trying to get safe crossing facilities are stymied by documents such as this. Work on many levels is needed to lower our DSI.

      1. I understand the issue of choosing crossing facilities. That should be debated. But ad hominem attacks are pointless. If his complaint is dismissed he will say ‘they are all in it together’ and if it is upheld then the only result will be a mad dash to get out of Engineers NZ.
        Making it about an engineer, or all engineers, turns an important debate into a scissor statement.

        1. Miffy, the consequences of trying to require professionals to behave honourably are not always clear. That’s true. Engineering NZ may also react to this by putting in place a whole lot of legal protections for members, which could be quite detrimental to progress on safety.

          But the problems in the transport field are so deeply embedded, throughout cultures and regulations and documents and processes, that we’re not seeing change on the ground. Despite the review and the restructures and the government’s intentions, personal change is going to be required on the part of the professionals involved.

          We have to give the profession a chance to take this realisation on, and change.

          1. Heidi if the author of the complaint wanted to have an engineer investigated then he could have made a complaint and let the matter run its course. In my view the fact he has blogged about it with a headline about making engineers uncomfortable shows his motives. That Greater Auckland allowed this rather than an article about how the selection system works and why it might be flawed reflects badly on Greater Auckland in my view.

          2. Experience has shown that complaints about individual priests, teachers, doctors, etc, being aired in the media has brought complaints about other members of those professions forward, and only then have the professions attempted positive transformation.

            Don’t underestimate the years of work Bevan has put in to try to change things without going through the media. The barriers to change he and other safety advocates have encountered have been utterly unreasonable. This is as valid a response to insitutional inertia as any, given that people’s lives are being lost and broken by the system.

        2. – Do you only tackle a culture of abuse within a church by encouraging culture transformation, or do you also lay complaints against abusive priests?
          – Do you only tackle teacher racism by encouraging good training and professional development, or do you also lay complaints against teachers who are racist?
          – Do you only tackle doctors systematically misdiagnosing through professional development and having peer review, or do you also lay complaints against the negligent doctors?

          Engineers questioning their own peers is a critical step to bringing transformative change to a profession that is responsible in big part for what the safety review has found to be a crisis.

        3. Hi Miffy,

          After lodging my complaint, Engineering NZ’s legal advisor advised “Your concerns centre on the [Austroads and NZTA] policy decision to weight pedestrian safety against travel delays… We do not think our complaints process is the appropriate avenue to address your concerns.”

          I disagreed with Engineering NZ’s seeming willingness to allow external agency’s policy decisions to override their own members’ Code of Ethical Conduct.

          But Engineering NZ wouldn’t budge and so I decided to write a post for Greater Auckland. This has proved a positive move as today I’ve learnt (via the UPDATE above) that Engineering NZ “are not ignoring or dismissing it”. So I’m very grateful to Greater Auckland for their assistance, and am hopeful I will get the opportunity for my complaint to be heard.

          1. Sounds like it is going in the right direction. The Transportation Group can debate if the thing is fit for purpose, they can’t investigate a member. The technical merits can be looked at but not the ethics of an individual, that power rests with EngNZ.

    2. “A greater Auckland must become a better place to live in, to move around and to connect with others.” (Greater Auckland, values)
      I would assume that being able to cross the road safely is a basic value for a good place to live in?

    1. I’d add that I filed a series of proposed pedestrian improvements under “efficiency”, and not “safety”, to be able to use the time savings in favour of pedestrians. The problem being of course that we don’t know the pedestrian flows, and that counting them would not give us an idea of those deterred of crossing because of the facility itself. I think that a tool like Space Syntax would need to be unrolled to help us with this.

  3. For context here, the Ped xing tool is not a decision making tool anymore than a calculator or spreadsheet is. It is designed to do some useful calculations for the practitioner to then use to inform their recommendations. It doesn’t “trade off” pedestrian safety vs traffic delay, it just points out those are two of the potential outcomes of a particular crossing treatment (it also calculates pedestrian delay too BTW).

    You can choose to ignore some outputs eg if I was on a minor road or busy shopping street I really wouldn’t care about traffic delay. And indeed, the latest NZTA project selection/evaluation procedures point out that (1) traffic delay should be ignored for many crossing Benefit/Cost calcs, and (2) lots of “Low Cost, Low Risk” projects now don’t even need a B/C calc.

    1. As one tool in the decision making process, it doesn’t seem useful. Severance isn’t measured. The lower rates of walking that result from poor crossing facilities is understood; so too are the public health and environment costs from these lower rates of walking. The table in the tool only allows delay to pedestrians who still cross – it doesn’t allow a measure of disbenefit to society because many pedestrians won’t cross if a lack of facilities means they won’t walk.

      Like an evaluation tool, output is only as good as the input. So here we have a tool that systematically excludes measuring the very factors that a society trying to improve its health and safety needs to value.

      To not ‘trade off’ safety and delay, the tool would need to keep the understanding of the two consequences separated at all times. Instead, the tool assigns monetary value to them and then totes it up. This is what economics does all the time. But it’s not good science. And it’s not good engineering.

    2. Glen isn’t that also the case with traffic models? They are ‘only a tool’, ‘just to inform judgement’, ‘not to be slavishly followed’…. or smarter versions like; ‘all models are wrong but some are useful’ etc etc. But what actually happens in practice?

      Any output with a number or as a result of a calculation from measurements, even a simple extrapolation, tends to have a force of apparent objectivity, of fact, no matter how often they turn out, in retrospect, to little be different from any old guess. Or more importantly, to miss so many factors that are critical but not on the modellers radar, or are just too hard to count or reduce to a numeric function….

      Traffic modelling has become the ultimate judge in so many significant decisions about how we live; literally everything else is secondary to assumed traffic congestion in some arbitrary year.

      1. Traffic models are a good analogy. Again in the wrong hands they can produce some terrible decisions. But I don’t see anyone laying an ethics complaint against the makers of SIDRA, Paramics, and the like?

        1. Perhaps this is the next step? There is definitely a case for doing something about the misapplication of traffic models, in any case.

          The wider engineering profession has been shaking its head in disbelief at this issue all my adult life, at least. The whole reason I’m now advocating for safety and involved with Greater Auckland is because I was tired of the head-shaking and decided to pull apart the traffic modelling for Waterview Connection for myself. When I saw that it was true – that the engineers had indeed excluded the land-use effects and new ‘person-trips’ of new roading capacity – I knew I had to get involved. I subsequently found through an OIA request that this was not just standard practice, but that NZTA knew of no project in NZ that accounted for these effects of new road capacity.

          Systematic bias towards roads has caused our poor urban form and car dependency, and these things are big contributors to our unhealthy inactive population, our high DSI, and our lowered levels of access. So there’s no reason the perpetrators of this bias shouldn’t be brought to some sort of justice. Perhaps if the government manages to get change in how the traffic models are used in evaluations the spotlight won’t need to be used. But I don’t imagine that will happen without a fight.

  4. Excellent approach, Bevan. I’m sure you & GA are coming under intense pressure for post from those who feel it puts their professional integrity in question. Hang in there you have our support.
    To those upset by this I suggest you collect up a small group of three year olds for a shopping mission. Walk to your local shops using streets in your area at a busy traffic time and tell us how well these sorts of tools have served your journey.

  5. “Reasonable” is subjective depending on who you talk to. Apparently it is quite reasonable to expect that people will die on the road and that is just the way things are. The vast majority of people think that is reasonable, otherwise there would be nationwide protests and petitions. It’s how we get helmet laws. Just like most people think it is reasonable to let people drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes with all of the health problems caused.

    “Reasonable steps” is more than ambiguous enough to protect the status quo.
    Reasonable is mostly “Just dont make things worse, but improve things if it doesnt cost too much time/money/hassle”

    I expect nothing to come from this.

    1. One complaint against a problem, one media article about a problem, does not fix the problem. However, it is hardly useless in the battle. Rome wasn’t built in one day. Every journey begins (or continues) with single steps. This, I feel, is an important one.

    2. NZTA does not appear to agree with your interpretation of reasonable. They state “Our position is that it is unacceptable for anyone to be killed or seriously injured while travelling or working on the land transport system” (NZTA Statement of Intent 2018-2022).

      1. Bevan that statement from NZTA is what is expected from a government department. Anyone would say that. Anyone would also say it is unacceptable that crime happens or that anything bad at all happens. You may as well say “I don’t like bad things.” That is what that statement means. It’s not like they are going to say “We’re ok with a little death, because some people do stupid things and these things happen…”

        In the context of the use of the word “reasonable” in this instance, you are talking about what is reasonable for the average engineer. It is reasonable to make sure whatever they do is as safe as they can make it within their power to do, using the best available knowledge and using the best practices as practiced by their peers. Are the best practices unethical? Perhaps. But you can’t find the individual guilty if they did what the average engineer is expected to do.

        Engineers could build technically safe, fully grade separated solutions at great expense and people will still die. Guaranteed. Engineering solutions don’t stop drunk 14yo drivers doing stupid things.

        Regardless, I have no problem with this complaint. I think engineers need to be challenged about this stuff more than they are currently. Travel delay should not factor into the BCR of safety projects. NZTA should not be giving funding disincentives to safety projects that cause delays.

    1. That’s quite revealing, isn’t it? I don’t think he’s alone in picking up and using the ‘appropriate’ language expected, while business as usual continues simply through the misinterpretation of the more acceptable language.

    2. Dead or very dead? Slightly dead? I guess sometimes mostly dead could be worse? Probably is more expensive… anyway none of these are worse than being delayed for a few seconds…

      1. Of course, you’re right, Patrick. Mostly dead could result in very large health system costs and therefore might justify holding up a motorist for more than three seconds, whereas the cost of a funeral is a more finally balanced choice.

    1. Hi Axel, thanks for the link to your presentation. The example you give of NZ’s practice in giving priority to minor travel time savings over death & serious injury is compelling and I agree it is unethical (Slides 10 -13).

      1. …while accepting that since 2017 our project evaluation and prioritisation policies have changed rather dramatically (for the better), largely thanks to a change in our political masters…

        1. And yet I know one engineer who decided the street designs he was getting from AT were still so unsafe for vulnerable road users that instead of suggesting changes, he just rejected them outright.

          This year. 2019.

  6. Targetting this pedestrian Crossing tool is barely scratching the surface. Rightly or wrongly, trading off safety and cost is inherent throughout the whole industry, including the economic evaluation manual and the business case process. I think it goes even wider and is inherent throughout the whole economy – you could even argue that the 2015 health and safety act requires this trade off to be made: “reasonably practicable…means that which is, or was, at a particular time, reasonably able to be done in relation to ensuring health and safety, taking into account and weighing up all relevant matters, including…the cost associated with available ways of eliminating or minimising the risk”. Will be interesting to see where this leads to…

  7. To make our point crystal clear, we didn’t say this complaint was too hot to handle.
    Our view is that this isn’t about an individual engineer’s competence or ethical obligations – it’s about the bigger picture. Our complaints process is designed to handle specific complaints about specific engineers, not policies developed by groups of individuals and organisations.
    What we suggested to Bevan was engaging with groups that can influence the policy.

    1. I have made a specific complaint about a specific engineer who led the development of a specific tool that specifically trades off pedestrian safety against minor inconvenience for motorists.

      In my opinion this is a violation of Engineering NZ’s Code of Ethical Conduct which requires all members to “take reasonable steps to safeguard the health and safety of people.”

      Rather than allowing natural justice to proceed, Engineering NZ is unwilling to consider the complaint. It appears that they would prefer to ignore their Code of Ethical Conduct when it come to engineers providing services to certain major clients (eg: Austroads and NZTA).

      1. This is why allowing a single body to be responsible for a membership-representing Institute model *and* professional standards regulatory functions is not a good idea.

        It’s not adopted in medicine, architecture or other life-critical professions in NZ, and not for engineering in many other countries.

        ENZ may have responded in many good ways to problems like the accountability failures following the CTV collapse, but I’m afraid that the behaviour Bevan describes (not challenging ethical behaviours by individuals when major clients are involved) points to this underlying problem – regulation and ‘club’ functions should be seperate.

    2. Given policies are written by a group of individuals, is it not incumbent on those individuals to act ethically? Particularly given policy will have more wide ranging impact than that of an individual acting not in accordance with the code of ethics?
      This perhaps is an area where Engineering NZ should be pushing individuals to closely examine the meaning of their ethics, and for those individuals to make policy recommendations that are not necessarily in keeping with what may be politically popular? If those individuals are over-ruled: it would then be the role of Engineering NZ to (1) make sure members are not acting against their ethics; and (2) campaign vigorously to those that have enacted policies that will potentially result in more people being injured or dying.
      The New Zealand engineering profession has, very fortunately, not had failures that have impacted it in the same ways that in Canada the Quebec Bridge failures and Station Square collapse (BC) did. This maybe why Engineering NZ’s Code of Ethics (https://www.engineeringnz.org/resources/code-ethical-conduct/) has the following first two points:
      “1. Take reasonable steps to safeguard health and safety
      2. Have regard to effects on environment”
      Whereas Canadian engineering associations codes of ethics use much stronger language (example below from British Columbia’s EGBC):
      “1) Hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public, the protection of the environment and promote health and safety within the workplace”
      I am not insinuating that Engineers working New Zealand are not doing so to a high standard (as most do in both technical and ethical terms). However the language could be far stronger to both give firmer direction to engineers, and help instill confidence in the public.

    3. It is about the bigger picture obviously a much bigger picture then Engineering NZ can grasp. It is about professional engineers, and now their professional society are currently avoiding taking active leadership in a matter of literal life and death. Unambiguous opposition to trade offs between vehicle flow considerations and road design being a factor in killing pedestrians, especially non traffic savvy children, and disabled people is now required of you engineers and your professional body. Take action now or continue to loose leadership influence at the top table deciding our society’s future direction.

  8. Interesting post Bevan. I am curious to see how this plays out.

    Full disclosure: I’m an associate member of ENZ’s Transport Group, I think their code of conduct is generally good, and I take its principles seriously.

    I am a bit torn over whether safety should be an individual responsibility (as implied by the complaint) or an institutional one. Then again, institutions are made up of individuals, and hence changing individual incentives will change the way institutions operate.

    That being said, safety is a real blind spot (ha) for the profession, as evidenced by the shocking rate of road deaths. Analying safety improvements as a ‘trade-off’ between fundamentally incommensurate outcomes (deaths and delay) is part of that problem.

    My tentative view is that setting safety as a firm bottom line would have a lot of benefits for transport engineers themselves, as well as the rest of society. (Ideally tempered by a requirement for (a) preserving a minimum level of access for all modes and (b) realising that people will do things that they’re not supposed to, like climbing over crossing barriers if they badly need to get across the street and there are no crosswalks in sight.)

    Making safety decisions on a project-by-project level, as is current practice, imposes a lot of ambiguity and stress on engineers and decision-makers. Engineers know that it is unsafe to design a building without fire sprinklers and earthquake strengthening. If you ask them to leave those out to save money, they will say no – and nobody will fault them for it. We need to take a similar approach for transport engineering – just say no to requests to build intersections without safe crossings!

    1. Peter, the problem with the fire sprinkler analogy is that people could choose to just sit in the building as it burns down around them, because the last several times the fire was just a false alarm.

      You point this out, that people do things they aren’t meant to do and engineers can’t stop them doing those things. Most our roads are safe if people use them responsibly 100% of the time. Except most people don’t.

      We don’t blame Coke, supermarkets and sugar farmers when people die of diabetes. Should we?

      There is no other system where we have so many individuals interacting with each other in such dangerous circumstances. The problem is a matter of human nature. Few people really expect to be in a car crash and so often undertake irresponsible behavior (speeding, drunk, tired, distracted driving). Most of the time they get away with it without consequence and so the driver gets slack and eventually there is a crash.

      Even though we really should definitely blanket reduce speed limits everywhere, that won’t eliminate people dying.

      I agree there should be some minimum standard set by roading authorities, but the obvious cost liability will be borne by the state which is a big disincentive to change. As you say, the minimum removes the politics from decision making on the part of the engineer. This makes if a far simpler process.

  9. I think the problem is that society has seen engineers as implementors only, not as an essential part of the entire policy and resourcing descision making process. Engineers have allowed this to happen by being far too passive. How much crap engineering is the direct result of the finanancial function deciding whatever the carefully compiled estimate was, to impose an arbitrary 10% cut.
    Engineers need to step up and become much more assertive in demanding a more active role in determining the full consequences, of all projects, Safety, lifetime costs, interaction with other elements of the total environment.

  10. Perhaps the biggest mistake was removing the men with red flags who were once required to precede every motor vehicle on foot. Pedestrians were safe under that regime!

    But seriously, while that level of restriction may sound ridiculous from today’s viewpoint, the carnage caused by motor vehicles since then is vastly more ridiculous – particularly if you factor in many other countries whose road-safety regimes are far worse than ours.

    As one whose eyes were first opened to horrible inequity of the road-transport system some 45 years ago at a time when very few others paused to question it, reading Bevan’s insightful posting and the large number of supportive comments is music to the ears. Although awareness has substantially improved since then, we still have a long way to go as Bevan’s complaint makes clear. Good work!

  11. I would go a whole stop further and say the way we design roads is completely irresponsible and unethical.

    We kill a plane road of people every year and get away with it. In the US about 40,000 die per year. That’s about 80 A380s.

    Structural Engineers that did the same would be thrown out of the profession.

    We need:
    a) a new nationwide infrastructure design standard (not guideline – exemptions only by signed authority with the designer and authorizer liable) for all new nzta, road controlling authority and developer works that mandatorily puts safety first – eg approach based traffic phasing and fully protected movements for all, including cyclists and pedestrians. (already achieved where I currently live)

    b) a requirements that retrofits have to meet the new standard.

  12. Bevan, well done with your post. Sometimes it is just a waste of time complaining, but highlighting the issue in a public forum sometimes produces results.

    I will attach just a small piece of a recent exchange that I had with AT. Given that the project that I was complaining about had a cost of $30 million (yes $30,000,000) it seemed relatively important. It also seemed important because AT ignored at least five of their parking policies in deciding to proceed.

    So to the complaint. My first complaint was on 30 June last year. I re-sent my complaint on 2 October and 11 November.

    On 21 January I sent an OIA Request asking why my complaint was not responded to. I received a response today, but as best I can tell, while they have answered the OIA Request, they have not answered the complaint.

    Let me reproduce just one piece. I wrote, “1) In respect of each of the identified pieces of my correspondence (30/6/2018, 2/10/2018, and 18/11/2018), which did Mr Ellison, or a member of his direct staff read?” and “3) In respect of each of the identified pieces of my correspondence, which did Mr Ellison, or a member of his direct staff take any affirmative action?”

    And the reply to 3) (from AT)
    All three emails were forwarded to the Customer Liaison Team and the Manager of Parking Services for follow up on 2 July 2018.

    The more astute among you might be thinking, how were the last two emails forwarded before they even arrived?

    I don’t want to labour the issue in case Miffy bemoans that this is an attack on one of Auckland’s most venerable institutions (AT, if some are confused).

    It is unfortunate that some institutions seem to regard themselves as beyond criticism. I get how they may feel aggrieved when they are faced with a frivolous complaint that is completely unfounded. Is it reasonable though that an institution should try and dodge a complaint that seeks to hold them account regarding their own policies? If they aren’t policies but simply ideas, shouldn’t they just call them that?

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