Politicians, bureaucrats need to talk like grown ups
As state controller, I serve on the Nevada Department of Transportation Board of Directors. At one board meeting, someone dwelt briefly on NDOT’s “Zero Fatalities” roadway safety goal.
I said I strongly support safety, but a literal goal of zero fatalities is not realistic. It’s also likely a distraction from the necessary balancing of safety with other important matters such as efficient traffic flow and cost management. At best, it’s a mostly empty statement of the obvious: We value human life and well being.
Some board members and bureaucrats seemed appalled anyone would raise such points. Their responses were, in turn, aggressive and even condescending, seemingly wounded, or just wordy. All swore allegiance to the literal phrase and dismissed any thought that we can’t ever reach it.
The NDOT website states: “Some people may think zero is an impossible goal, but when it comes to your family and friends, what other number would be acceptable? We’re aiming for zero fatalities because every one matters.”
That’s typical nanny-state smug preachiness. It’s also a non-sequitur, because holding one’s family and friends precious does not — indeed, cannot — make zero fatalities a reasonable public policy or operating goal.
For the advocates, however, impossibility is apparently no excuse not to join the fervent chorus. Some even seemed to suggest that failure to join either shows lack of human feeling or that one has never experienced the pain of losing a loved one or had one seriously injured in a traffic mishap.
Maybe it never occurs to them that people who have experienced such horror might have put it into perspective instead of being so emotionally crushed by it that they’ve lost the ability to deal with life’s problems on a rational adult level.
When I was eight years old, my brother of seven and I once needed to cross a highway bordering our neighborhood. I told him to wait for an opening in the traffic, but apparently he thought he saw one, bolted across, and was hit by a car moving about 40 mph at impact. The driver was barely able to touch the brakes before the car launched my brother far in the air to a one-point landing on his face on the concrete. He skidded a distance before coming to rest in a small pool of his own blood.
He survived, but with various broken bones the length of his body and permanent damage observable yet today that has diminished some of life’s possibilities for him. I was not only horrified at the sight, but as his big brother, I felt somewhat responsible, even though I had tried to stop him. For 58 years I’ve borne the shock of experiencing such an event up close and the nagging guilt of wondering whether I could have done something to prevent it.
So, I don’t need sanctimonious nanny-state “public service ads” (PSAs) or unrealistic goals and self-serving posturing by politicians and bureaucrats. I know the pain of such loss and the need to avoid such carnage and human suffering.
Even without having such an experience, sensible adults know that kids sometimes run into traffic, and other terrible and sad things happen that all those PSAs can’t prevent.
Particularly so, because in recent decades the proliferation of these messages has diminished their power to get attention and convey their intended messages to people, turning most PSAs into background noise and distraction. They’re now as much about self-indulgence and preening by the people sponsoring them as they are anything else.
Despite claims that we can and will achieve this goal, NDOT’s website shows 129 fatalities so far this year statewide as of June 8, versus 123 a year earlier. If this were really a serious literal standard, we should see some accountability by the people and programs that have failed to move us toward the goal, not just slogans and grandstanding at public meetings.
Here’s the irony: NDOT’s actual safety program, based on engineering, public education and law enforcement, may actually strike a reasonable balance despite the false name. At least, in addressing lane departures, vehicle occupant protection, impaired driving, problems at intersections, motorcycles and pedestrians, the actual operating program sounds better than the public relations phrase.
All my life, I’ve been inspired by the words of John Gardner, the great liberal 1960s federal Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and founder of Common Cause: “Social change is work for the tough-minded and competent.” That applies not just to social change, but to all public service and public employment.
After decades of drift into sound bites and the trivialization of so many things in public discussion, we need to again begin to talk like grown ups to grown ups. In measured terms, not feel-good, glittering, simplistic absolutes.
Ron Knecht is Nevada State controller.