CT suburb considering fines for “distracted walking”

The suburb of Stamford, Connecticut is considering penalizing those walking under the influence of phones:

Texting or even talking on an electronic device may soon be illegal in Stamford if a proposal to outlaw ‘distracted walking’ is approved…

“They’re oblivious to cars,” Stamford City representative, John Zelinsky said.

Zelinsky said the Pedestrian Safety Ordinance is modeled after one approved in Honolulu late last month, and would carry a $30 fine if police catch you in the act.

Such behavior can be dangerous for both users and others on the sidewalks and streets. Yet, legislating distractedness out of walking, bicycling, and driving is a tricky business. Does walking and talking with someone count as distracted walking? Is it okay to suddenly stop right in the middle of a busy sidewalk to take a phone call?

I have long wondered about implementing traffic regulations on busy sidewalks (see a story from England about this). Sidewalks are public spaces but also important conduits for foot traffic and some kinds of vehicles. Overcrowding can occur; see the recent example of Manhattan. And how people use the sidewalks can vary dramatically with use ranging from running and powerwalking to strolling to standing or sitting for conversation.

The Swiss Cheese Model for dealing with industrial accidents

I was recently reading The Grid by Gretchen Bakke where a discussion of massive power plant brownouts led to discussing two approaches to industrial accidents:

One might be given to think that this blackout might have been prevented if somebody had just noticed as things slowly went awry – if in 2002 all of FirstEnergy’s “known common problems” had been dealt with rather than merely 17 percent of them, if the trees had been clipped, if a bright young eye had seen the static in the screen. But what most students of industrial accidents recognize is that perfect knowledge of complex systems is not actually the best way to make these systems safe and reliable. In part because perfect real-time knowledge is extremely difficult to come by, not only for the grid but for other dangerous yet necessary elements of modern life – like airplanes and nuclear power plants. One can just never be sure that every single bit of necessary information is being accurately tracked (and God knows what havoc those missing bits are wreaking while they presumed to-be-known bits chug along their orderly way). Even if we could eliminate all the “unknown unknowns” (to borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld) from systems engineering – and we can’t – there would still be a serious problem to contend with, and that is how even closely monitored elements interact with each other in real time. And of course humans, who are always also component parts of these systems, rarely function as predictable as even the shoddiest of mechanical elements.

Rather than attempting the impossible feat of perfect control grounded in perfect information, complex industrial undertaking have for decades been veering toward another model for avoiding serious disaster. This would also seem to be the right approach for the grid, as its premise is that imperfect knowledge should not impede safe, steady functioning. The so-called Swiss Cheese Model of Industrial Accidents assumes glitches all over the place, tiny little failures or unpredicted oddities as a normal side effect of complexity. Rather than trying to “know and control” systems designers attempt to build, manage, and regulate complexity in such a way that small things are significantly impeded on their path to becoming catastrophically massive things. Three trees and a bug shouldn’t black out half the country. (p.135-136)

Social systems today are increasingly complex – see a recent post about the increasing complexity of cities – and we have more and more data regarding the components and the whole of systems. However, as this example illustrates, humans don’t always know what to do with all this data or see the necessary patterns.

The Swiss Cheese Model seems to privilege redundancy and resiliency over stopping all problems. At the same time, I assume there are limits to how many holes in the cheese are allowed, particularly when millions of residents might be affected. Who sets that limit and how is that decision made? We’ll accept a certain number of electrical failures each year but no more?

Explaining the drop in DUI arrests and crashes in the Chicago suburbs

The roads in the Chicago suburbs have been safer since 2007:

DUI arrest totals last year in 79 suburbs were about half what they were in 2007, despite only a small drop in police staffing. There were 6,955 arrests last year, compared to 12,166 in 2007, according to annual state-funded surveys compiled by the Schaumburg-based Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists.

Meanwhile, those same suburbs in six counties reported 1,555 crashes involving alcohol-impaired driving in 2007, according to Illinois Department of Transportation crash reports. By 2009, that number was down to 1,012 alcohol-impaired crashes, and it has hovered near that mark ever since, with 1,065 crashes in 2014, the reports show.

What is behind this?

“It’s the economy,” said Don Ramsell, a Wheaton-based attorney who specializes in drunken driving defenses. “It’s so obvious it’s ridiculous. Alcohol is a feature of people’s disposable income, and most people have a lot less of that these days…

Lake in the Hills Police Chief David Brey chalks up the decline in the number of arrests to “more and more people making a conscious effort to take a cab or have a designated driver.”…

Ramsell and AAIM Executive Director Rita Kreslin say lean budgets might have something to do with fewer DUI arrests. Both said police officers have told them they’re under less pressure to make DUI arrests because of the time and expense of following up in court.

Three different explanations: people have less money to spend on alcohol, drinkers have become smarter about using alternative transportation, and police departments may have been devoting less attention to this area. Getting this explanation right could be consequential as communities and police departments think about their budgets. In contrast, simply throwing out possible explanations (probably based on anecdotal evidence) may serve particular interests.

Still, good news overall for the safety of suburban roads. Now we can see whether the trend lasts and this might provide evidence for the explanations given above.

Keep scrolling for the chart that shows how deep in the ocean MH370’s may be

Richard Deitsch highlights this chart showing the possible depth of MH370’s black box. I’m not copying it here because it is one long chart.

Two things the chart does well:

1. On the way down to 15,000 feet, it shows relative heights and depths of other objects. Buildings don’t even come close and animal life is limited.

2. The effect of continued scrolling highlights just how deep the black box may be. The chart could have shrunk to fit the screen or a typical newspaper page but it would then lose the interactive element of going down more and more.

“How Trains Can Be Silent Killers”

Over 780 people were killed by trains last year in the United States and it is possible for them to sneak up quietly on people:

“Statistically, every 94 minutes something or someone is getting hit by a train in the United States,” says David Rangel, deputy director of Modoc Railroad, a training school for future train engineers. Now, most of those incidents don’t involve people—Rangel’s statistic also includes the occasional abandoned shopping cart, wayward livestock, and other objects that somehow find their way onto the tracks. But, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), 784 people were killed in train-related accidents in 2013, the highest total in the last four years.

That accident rate comes down to a combination of factors, each increasing the likelihood of disasters. “Railcars are incredibly quiet,” Rangel says. “[Tracks] are designed to achieve the lowest possible coefficient of friction…At age 62, I could push a train car down a track.” Unlike a steam engine that would hammer the rails (a main reason why they were retired), modern railcars glide with low friction, and crushed rock underneath the tracks helps diminish impact. “You won’t hear it or feel it,” Rangel says.

The Doppler Effect, which explains how sound changes pitch based on an observer’s location relative to the sound’s origin (the reason sirens sound different as they approach you), plays a role. However, since they were in front of the train, where the pitch would be higher, they’d be more likely to hear the siren and doesn’t explain why they didn’t hear the train coming. Unsurprisingly, some train-collision victims often were wearing headphones or earbuds at the time. (These two were not wearing headphones.)

Terrain can also add to the danger. If a locomotive passes through a corridor lined with trees, those trees act like sound baffles in a recording studio, Rangel says, suppressing the noise. The average railcar traveling at 50 mph measures in decibels between at “loud voice” and a “shout,” according to the FRA. The horn itself, though, can be even louder than sirens on an ambulance.

When you think about it, it is surprising how open train tracks are to the general public. The average city or suburban dweller could probably get to a railroad line easily and walk around. This also includes a large number of at-grade crossings, a particular problem in the Chicago region with lots of freight traffic and lots of people. But, the goal of railroad lines is not to minimize accidents but rather to transport goods and people as efficiently as possible.

h/t Instapundit

Two places for regular vehicle accidents: The Snake on Mulholland Drive, short underpass in Durham

I ran across stories recently about two areas that experience numerous vehicle accidents. Not just a few but dozens of accidents over several years. Here they are:

1. A short underpass, eleven feet eight inches, in Durham, North Carolina takes off the tops of a number of trucks. Watch here:

Though authorities have made efforts to prevent vehicles from running into the low-ceilinged bridge – which as blinking lights and multiple signs warn, has a clearance of only 11 feet and 8 inches – the demonic structure continues to ruin the days of incautious drivers. “After a 5-month ‘dry spell,’ the Gregson St canopener got hungry again in November and December,” reports the bridge’s devoted biographer, Jürgen Henn…

Note the counter at bottom – that last collision marked at least 67 violent impacts since 2008 at this miserable crossing. As to why nobody’s fixed the wretched thing, as explained before 1) a sewer main right underneath is blocking the lowering of the road 2) the railroad company that maintains the bridge has installed a crash beam, so the problem is covered from its end 3) the city has put up signs about the low clearance as far back as three blocks, so it’s covered from its end.

2. The Snake is at one end of famous Mulholland Drive, known for its views of Los Angeles. Motorcycles, in particular, seem to have a lot of problems:

On any given Sunday, The Snake is overrun by drivers and motorcyclists. They’ve been hitting this spot 30 miles northwest of Hollywood for decades, but it became a hot destination in the 1960s when Steve McQueen started blasting through Mulholland on his Triumph. The road’s popularity grew over the years, and even an aggressive crackdown on speeding and a temporary shuttering of the road in the 1990s did little to slow the The Snake’s popularity. These days it isn’t uncommon to see celebrities like Jay Leno motoring through in six-figure cars. But it’s the motorcyclists you’ll see most often…

Bennett says Edwards Corner is not a tough one. It’s an uphill bend with a constant radius and positive camber, meaning the road’s angle is steady and the surface is tilted inward. The riders who go down tend to hit the corner way too fast, realize they’re in over their heads, fixate on the guard rail, and slam right into it. Just as often, though, riders get too greedy with the throttle on the way out, causing the rear end to slide. Beginners and squids tend to jump off the throttle or lay on the brakes, causing the bike to go wide and forge a trail into the hillside. The skilled riders come down from speed before the turn, lean in, and roll on the gas after the apex — keeping their eyes on the exit the entire time…

Snyder’s videos show exactly how, in excruciating detail. A playlist of 79 clips shows every type of rider imaginable making every type of mistake imaginable. Lowsides on Harleys, highsides on Ducatis, and the occasional car crash. But through it all, there’s an air of camaraderie, with riders helping each other pull bikes from ditches as others slow incoming traffic and even sweep up dirt and debris to prevent another crash.

I spent 20 minutes or so the other watching a number of these 79 clips. Remarkably, most of the people in the accidents were able to walk away, even in the 2013 crash where a motorcyclist hit two cyclists.

In both cases, it sounds like drivers should be well aware of the dangers. In the case of the underpass, there are plenty of signs – though it is unclear how many drivers heed signs. In the case of The Snake, it looks like there are often people standing around, indicating something to pay attention to – though this might lead to trying to show off. Perhaps officials only have two means of recourse: (1) completely rebuild these sections or (2) close these sections all together if rebuilding is not possible.

Another remarkable piece of this: there are people willing to videotape all of these crashes and then make them available online.

Naperville to commemorate deadly 1946 train collision

Naperville likes its public art so it is not surprising to see that a memorial for a deadly 1946 train crash is in the planning stage:

In 1946, two trains crashed at the Naperville station and killed 45 people, including some military personnel returning from World War II…

Plans are moving forward to place a sculpture as a memorial near the site of the train wreck. The project would be installed on the day after the 68th anniversary of the April 25 crash. The memorial would honor those who died and recognize heroic rescue efforts on that Thursday afternoon in 1946 when the Exposition Flyer, a passenger train heading west from Chicago, plowed into the Advance Flyer, which had made an unscheduled stop at the Naperville station to check mechanical problems.

About 125 people were injured in the crash.

“It’s a story that I bet 95 percent of the people in Naperville don’t know about,” said W. Brand Bobosky, president of Century Walk Corp., a public-private partnership that has installed dozens of sculptures related to the city’s history in and around downtown.

This was a large incident, even among a metropolitan region full of railroad lines (which leads to some smaller accidents), lots of freight moving through the area, and high commuter counts in places like Naperville. To some degree, perhaps it is remarkable train crashes don’t happen more often given the number of at-grade crossings as well as the number of trains.

The majority of the statues and public art in Naperville celebrate important figures, reinforcing the narrative of the suburb’s impressive community spirit as well as it is remarkable growth. At the same time, there is currently a 9/11 memorial along the south side of the Riverwalk. This new memorial might be the first to commemorate tragedy that occurred within Napeville itself. Is building a memorial a signal of the maturity of a suburb (that may or may not be related to how much time has passed or the size of the community)?

Aconsequence of this crash, according to Wikipedia, was that it contributed to lower train speeds in the United States:

This crash is a major reason why most passenger trains in the United States only travel at a speed limit of 79 mph (127 km/h) or below.[2][3] The CB&Q, Milwaukee Road, and Illinois Central were among railroads in the region running passenger trains at up to and above 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) in the 1930s and 1940s. The Interstate Commerce Commission ruled in 1951 that trains traveling faster must have “an automatic cab signal, automatic train stop or automatic train control system”,[4][5] expensive technology that was implemented on some lines in the region, but has since been mostly removed.

An interesting legacy.