Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Problems solving

Some time ago, I was a supervisor in the circulation department of the main Seattle library. We had two cash registers for overdue fines and other fees, so we had a combination safe in which we kept our change bank and pending deposits. When we closed at night, we would put the two cash drawers in a locked desk drawer, and one of the first supervisor duties in the morning was to retrieve them, complete the reconciliation and deposit, and make the safe right.

One morning, we discovered that the safe had been emptied overnight of about $400 in cash, without having been broken into. The cash drawers locked in the desk were untouched.

We had a meeting of the supervisors to figure thing out; everyone was puzzled as to what happened. In my (very) recent ex-detective voice, I told them: It's very simple. We supervisors use the combination daily; we have it memorized. You (and I pointed at our manager) never use it, but you need to know it just in case. So you have it written down somewhere. Probably on a post-it note. Probably in the back of the center drawer of your desk or under the phone. Some custodian came across it, realized there's only one safe around here, took a shot, and made a quick four hundred bucks. My manager was silent for a moment, and then said, "Well, it wasn't in my drawer. It was on the bottom of it."

After checking with the higher-ups, it was decided that, besides changing the combination of the safe (duh!), we would stop keeping the cash drawers overnight in the desk.

I pointed out that the security of the desk hadn't been compromised and that there was no need to change that practice. I was told that we just wanted to ramp up our overall security by keeping all the cash in a more secure place. I pointed out that were were moving cash from a place that had never had cash stolen from it to a place that had had cash stolen from it and asked how that was increasing security. I was told to stop pointing things out.

The episode has remained close to my heart as I have studied and thought about and taught critical thinking, but it may have been supplanted by a new episode that has recently unfolded on our campus.

There is a busy crosswalk on our campus from our main building to our main parking lot. Ever since I came to at Cascadia, it had been controlled by a stop sign in both directions. Traffic was required to stop at all times, regardless of whether a crossing pedestrian was present.

Recently, construction work began in the crosswalk area, and when it was completed, the stop signs had been removed and a new feature installed at the crosswalk: sensors now react to the presence of a walker by activating in-ground yellow flashing lights along the crosswalk itself, and a recorded voice admonishes pedestrians to "use caution when crossing."

Besides the disembodied voice being a little creepy, the whole rigmarole seems confusing. Apparently, someone may have been struck at or in the crosswalk, and this modification was in response to that incident, but I have yet been able to find hard info on that.

I have been trying to figure out how taking away a stop sign makes the crosswalk safer. I mean, if someone was indeed struck, it was (obviously) by a car that was moving; is taking away the mandatory stop likely to increase or decrease the number of cars moving through the crosswalk without stopping? Are the flashing yellow lights more or less likely than a stop sign to cause a driver to yield right-of-way to a pedestrian? Isn't the voice warning, on some systemic level, moving the responsibility for crosswalk safety from the drivers onto the pedestrians? This whole thing doesn't seem thought through.

I have also heard, but been unable to confirm, that the campus was not allowed to have both the flashing/warning system and the stop sign at the same crosswalk. There may be an RCW that prohibits this on public roads, but the campus is governed by Washington Administrative Code, and neither WAC 132Z-116, for Cascadia, or WAC 478-117, for UW-Bothell, seems to preclude the installation of any combination of traffic signaling devices. Even if the code made such a restriction, it would leave us with the question: if you have to choose between just a stop sign or just a lighted crosswalk, which one intuitively seems safer?

Maybe there is a counter-intuitive aspect to the situation; that can sometimes be the case. I wonder, though, if this wasn't another instance of people solving the problem that wasn't there rather than the one that was.

1 comment:

Juliet said...

ah-hem, time for pithy quotes: "Good enough for government work?" "What is a camel? A horse designed by committee?" "If we don't spend the tax dollars we'll lose them." "The FAA promotes air safety through regulation."