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Lawmakers need to consider more "Human Engineer" over solely punitive laws.

Date: 2013-01-18
Tags: laws human_engineering

Electrical Plates

When engineers want a person to not over-tighten, like on an electrical outlet, they don’t mandate the installer to not over-tighten it. They simply give you a flat-head screw.


Through a clever use of human engineering, the flathead screwdriver isn’t normally used with a power drill (thought they can be) and is just, in general, harder to over-tighten without slipping.

The idea is part of a larger set of ideas called Poka-Yoka from the Japanese “mistake-proofing”.



Let’s take another example, the Bicycle and Pedestrian Guide [Large PDF] Oregon DOT. Specifically, look at pages I-2, I-4, I-14, and 5-7. Here, suggestions are given on how to slow down traffic to enhance pedestrian and bicycle access and friendliness in business districts. Few of these suggestions are legislative, i.e.: rely on a posted speed limit, but use human engineering to “convince” drivers to slow down. For instance, coloring bicycle lanes and using markings that make the road appear narrower than it is make drivers slow down, empirically. Additionally, planting trees in such a way that visibility of other cars and pedestrians is not minimized, but “softens” the sides of the road also “convince” drivers to slow down, empirically. Engineers cannot make people drive exactly how they want; they cannot tell people to either, so they must instead create environments where doing what the engineer wants is natural.

Lessons for legislators

At the gym this morning I read an article in USA Today, Wisconsin legislators push tougher drunk-driving laws. A quote from the article,

Tougher penalties, [Adam Gerol, Ozaukee County District Attorney,] says, are ‘the only tool we have.’

put me in a very ranty mood (and before I get a slew of emails telling me a DA isn’t a legislator, I know, but the legislators in the article only discuss punitive measures and this quote is the specific one that set me off). While you won’t see me arguing against laws making penalties tougher on drunken driving, I don’t think that punitive measures alone are much good. Punitive measures with programs designed to reduce drunken driving would be the best approach. Everything comes down to an issue of money, but when, as the article states, 4 people die every week from drunken driving and an order of magnitude more are injured, maybe money should be spent on solutions.

What types of human engineering solutions exist, though? Off the top of my head I can imagine a few:

  • Bus, shuttle, or transit service (depending on the area) serving factories, bars, and housing, perhaps even with reduced or free fare if you shouldn’t be driving.
  • Paratransit service could be developed, e.g.: cheap taxis or programs like the University of Pittsburgh’s SafeRider program that targets trips between certain areas.
  • Reworking alcohol permits and actually allow bars closer to where people live.
  • Subsidising businesses where the sober driver arrives on public transit or a fold-up/collapsible bicycle or scooter, the sober driver then stow their bicycle or scooter in your car, drive you home in your car, and then leave the way they came (e.g.:Drivers Incorporated).

Moreover, having programs is not enough, they have to be promoted, and done so in such a way that the stigma of using them is removed; the choice to use them should be seen as responsible choice and not a failure on the drinkers part.

None of these or any other measures were brought up in the article. Human engineering is important and should be considered for solutions to problems, not just punitive measures. In fact, I believe, that the punitive measures are more acceptable to the public when other methods exist to help you fix a “mistake,” in this case drinking more than you thought you would.