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This rendering of an upcoming traffic project in California shows how road interchanges must be carefully considered to reduce congestion and accidents. Photo: Ken Berkman

‘What? Does some kid have to get killed?”

Isn't that always the last question thrown at you after you explain why a stop sign is not warranted or speed humps can't be installed? As a traffic engineer who deals with and disseminates only factual information, wouldn't you just love to say, “Well, actually…”

While workers in the public sector easily can be the targets of criticism when something goes wrong, my greatest empathy goes to traffic engineers. I can't think of a profession more second-guessed by the public, because everyone who possesses a driver's license believes they are de facto traffic engineers. They say, “I drive this route every day. Just stick a no-left-turn sign here and the problem is solved!”

I have found success in dealing with these “front-seat traffic engineers” (FSTEs) by placing them in the passenger seat of another FSTE and seeing how their proposal would affect the other driver. Since these suggestions, some with actual merit, are prompted only by personal inconvenience, FSTEs often soften up when I explain what they will be doing to their fellow drivers. When the “I don't care, that's not as bad as what I'm going through” or “Does somebody have to get killed?” responses come up, I must revert to facts and logic. This is unfortunate because most people won't listen to logic when they are trying to defend a decision based upon emotions or their sense of entitlement.

It's no small feat to explain how elimination of a left turn might cause increased congestion, more mid-block U-turns, and other drivers to travel an extra distance. And, since they're taxpayers, don't even try to tell them to leave 10 minutes earlier.

One of the more common requests in urban residential areas is for “traffic calming.” I find this term ironic because the process of trying to develop a traffic calming plan is anything but calm. I don't know of any other issue that can cause a tight-knit community to implode faster. The process usually involves the traffic engineer pulling out his tool box to show the community what options are available to them to help slow traffic down and keep it off their streets. I like calling this “Pandora's box” because if you're not careful when you open it, you'll release all the tools at once, turning your meeting into a circus and leave yourself only the hope that you somehow can escape alive. My favorite part is when we do the license plate survey, which often reveals that 75% of the people they're complaining about are themselves. Even actor Jim Carrey can't make his face contort like that.

So this brings me back to heaping praise upon my beloved traffic engineers. Despite public abuse, I've never seen a traffic engineer lose his/her composure. What I do see is the delivery of tough messages with compassion and humor. These are people who always seem to be the most patient, kind, and parental in our profession. With today's “What's in it for me?” and increasingly mobile society, they are much needed. Watch them and learn from them.

So if you have a family member or friend who is good at math and science and has an interest in psychology, introduce them to traffic engineering. They will have the most fulfilling careers, and prevent me from saying, “Well actually, yes. Some kid does have to get killed.”

Ken Berkman, P.E., is the city engineer for Agoura Hills, Calif.