Monthly Archives: September 2001

Public Safety and the Law of Unintended Consequences

By Dom Nozzi

Obsession n. Compulsive preoccupation with a fixed idea or unwanted feeling or emotion, often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety.

For complex and perhaps unflattering reasons, humans are exceedingly prone to obsessions. We “obsess” on entertainers, sugary foods, religion, mates, sports, and, of course, money.

Often, individuals and societies are able to recognize an unhealthy obsession, and turn to psychologists and politicians to help overcome them. Yet it is also common for an obsession to go unnoticed and untreated. This is particularly true for obsessions that are generally recognized as being good things.

One example of a “good” thing is “public safety.” It is my thesis that our society has gone overboard in our pursuit of public safety; so much so that, ironically enough, the efforts to increase public safety are destroying our quality of life. Alas, as is often the case, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

“Quality of Life” is now regularly on the agenda at neighborhood gatherings, legislative deliberations, corporate boardrooms, and government offices. Everyone strives for it, but very few are able to define it precisely. We grope for descriptions, and end up with vague generalities such as “freedom from pain,” “maximized individual choice or freedom,” “the greatest good for the greatest number,” “congestion-free roads,” or “winning the lottery.” Because our definitions are so vague, however, we find it difficult to decide whether our community boasts a high quality of life, or, in terms of changes to our community, whether a development proposal in our community will help us improve our quality of life.

Fortunately, our understanding of the concept is sufficient to enable us to make at least mildly accurate decisions about which actions improve our quality of life, and which will harm it.

Some of us are so bold and presumptuous as to state publicly what we feel would improve the quality of life for the entire community. In our efforts to argue for actions which would improve the quality of life for the community, though, we are often hindered by something more than the inability to adequately define quality of life. This hindrance, which seems to grow stronger every day, is, ironically enough, our promotion of public safety.

At first glance, there would seem to be perfect harmony between quality of life and public safety. Doesn’t quality of life start with public safety? After all, without promoting public safety, the quality of our lives would more likely be harmed by injuries, death of loved ones, or crime. And because our society has a history of dangerous streets, buildings, and factories, we have filled our law books with regulations and codes which minimize threats to public safety.

But it seems we have gone too far in our quest for safety. In our rush to protect ourselves from all the risks of life, we have become timid, uncreative, joyless, and fearful. Due to the Law of Diminishing Returns, we have reached the point where our huge expenditures of time, effort, and money for the attainment of even greater levels of public safety are actually harming our quality of life.

A few examples…

Our courts allow us to win huge liability lawsuits when negligence is demonstrated. Yet this liability has become so fearfully expensive that companies are afraid to test and market new products. Similarly, governments are unable to satisfy a large and growing demand for such obviously desired items as inexpensive skateboard facilities and other imaginative youth play equipment.

Our jails and prisons are bursting at the seams due to the huge increase in persons apprehended for crimes and incarcerated. Yet the huge cost of processing and warehousing such massive numbers of citizens has greatly diminished our ability to build parks or educate our children.

Our building codes enable us to reduce the probability of fires and accidents in our offices, homes, and schools. Yet the cost of retrofitting older buildings in our downtowns is so high that aspiring, creative entrepreneurs, artists, and restaurants are often chased to locations remote from downtown, thereby increasing the sprawl so detrimental to our quality of life.

Traffic safety standards frequently necessitate the removal of often huge and ancient oak trees considered too close to the roadway. Rather than slowing traffic to preserve these magnificent trees, we opt for the chainsaw.

 Has public safety become an enemy of our quality of life?

One of the most curious things about communities these days is that, paradoxically, the desire for a maximum amount of “public safety” has become profoundly responsible for making us less safe and more ill at ease, while rapidly eroding our quality of life. The problem is particularly disturbing because even when it is noticed as a problem, there is almost nothing that can be done about it, because it is extremely difficult, politically, to do something that seems counter to public safety. For example, if it is argued, in the name of slowing down cars for traffic safety, that we should not build streets extremely wide for huge fire trucks. In such an instance, people urging more narrow streets to improve neighborhood safety and quality of life are seen by many to be in favor of more babies dying in burning buildings—because more narrow streets might slow down the fire trucks.

Quite simply, we suffer from the “law of unintended consequences” when it comes to public safety…

Public Safety Effort. Wide street travel lanes, left-turn lanes, big intersection “vision triangles” (so a motorist can see around the corner before turning), and large turning radii (so that larger trucks can more easily turn at an intersection) are all justified in the name of safety for cars and speed for fire trucks.

Unintended Consequences. When we enlarge street dimensions in such ways, car speeds increase significantly, and motorists become dangerously inattentive. It therefore becomes less safe and less pleasant to bicycle around town, or walk on a sidewalk, or cross a street because of the big width of the street and the high car speeds created by the large street dimensions. Increasing car speeds and declining motorist attentiveness are some of the most important reasons for the decline in the livability of our neighborhoods.

Public Safety Effort. Fire codes, building codes, and electrical codes are justified to protect against the danger of fire or structurally unsound buildings, among other things.

Unintended Consequences. As noted earlier, such codes are often extremely costly when they need to be retrofitted into older, “in-town” buildings, which severely inhibits adaptive reuse or redevelopment in the city (mostly downtown) and leads many to develop in outlying areas. These consequences promote a stagnation of our downtown, reduce downtown safety due to empty buildings and reduced numbers of people, and reduce transportation choice (since nearly all outlying locations can only be reached by car). This problem is so substantial that the state of New Jersey has recently adopted a parallel Code that makes it easier for older, existing buildings to comply with contemporary safety rules. The result has been a significant increase in the rate of in-town redevelopment.

Public Safety Effort Increasingly loud and frequent emergency vehicle sirens, which are justified to ensure that motorists are able to hear emergency vehicles and get out of the way. On a related note, these loud emergency vehicles are brought to an increasing number of incidents—any incident that might possibly need emergency assistance.

Unintended Consequences. As emergency vehicle sirens become louder and more frequent, the nerves of in-town residents get frayed, and the tranquility and restfulness of in-town locations is lost. In-town locations are inherently subject to more sirens because most calls originate in central areas of a community. Some cities have noticeably less siren noise pollution than others—not because they are less dangerous or experiencing less emergencies, but because the community leaders recognize that a balance must be struck between public safety and quality of life.

Without striking this balance, and letting public safety concerns overwhelm quality of life concerns, many communities increasingly seem like a war zone, and its citizens are regularly awakened in the middle of the night by sirens. Commonly, people move to the outlying suburbs (which promotes costly sprawl and harms our in-town areas) to escape the in-town noise, and find peace and quiet.

Public Safety Effort. “High-tech”, catastrophic medical care, which is justified to heroically save or extend lives.

Unintended Consequences. Such care is extremely costly, which makes the overall health care system rather unaffordable in the U.S., and de-emphasizes important efforts, such as preventive care, that would promote much more significant improvements in public health over the long term.

Public Safety Effort. Liability management applied to public facilities (ensuring that your organization is not doing things that increase the chances of lawsuits), which is justified to guard against costly lawsuits.

Unintended Consequences. Often, we decide not to build public facilities, such as trails or imaginative youth play equipment, because of the threat of someone getting hurt and suing the responsible agency.

Public Safety Effort. Towering concrete street lights, and other forms of excessive lighting, which is justified to promote safety for motor vehicles and people at night.

Unintended Consequences. Tall, concrete street lights are extremely ugly, and ruin any chance of creating a romantic, human-scaled ambiance in our city. The high-speed highway character that tall street lights create probably encourage higher vehicle speeds. Excessive lighting hides the night-time stars from our view (an awe-inspiring view when we are away from cities). It adds dangerous glare to streets that is distracting or blinding to motorists. It makes our community less of a pleasant place because so many retailers use the lights to create the “building as sign” effect. It wastes a tremendous amount of electricity. And it makes it easier for lawbreakers to hide, since excessive lighting darkens shadows that they hide in.

Public Safety Effort. Surface parking lots in front of buildings, which is justified because some people feel unsafe at night if the parking lot is behind the building.

Unintended Consequences. When buildings are moved away from the streetside sidewalk, walking on the sidewalk becomes much less safe, less pleasant, and less convenient – therefore, more trips are made by car instead of by foot. In addition, we lose the cozy feeling created when buildings close to the street form wonderful “outdoor rooms.”

Public Safety Effort. Trees severely pruned or chopped down, or kept outside of the “clear zone” of streets, which is justified to protect overhead power lines, and guard against drivers crashing into trees if they veer off the street.

Unintended Consequences. Trees cut back or moved away from streets make our community and neighborhoods substantially less attractive and less shaded. Pulling trees back from the street also makes the street more “forgiving” and creates more of a “racetrack” feeling, which results in more reckless, high-speed, dangerous travel by cars.

I’m sure you can add your own favorites to this disturbing list…

Public safety is certainly not something we should trivialize or not strive to improve. But we need to guard against “suboptimizing.” That is, we need to remember that it is possible to have too much of a good thing, if for no other reason than that we can undercut other essential public objectives, such as quality of life, if we put all of our eggs into the public safety basket.

And as I note above, sometimes we get consequences we did not intend or foresee. It is time to find the leadership we so desperately need to restore quality of life as our community imperative, and rein in our public safety obsessions when our safety hysteria unintentionally obliterates, ironically, our quality of life.


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