Public Safety and the Law of Unintended Consequences

By Dom Nozzi

[Updated Jan 2009]


Is public safety 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, the people urging more narrow streets 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 “vision triangles,” and large turning radii (at intersections) 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, it 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.  And increasing car speeds is one of the most important reasons for the decline in the livability of our neighborhoods.


Public Safety Effort

Fire Codes and Building/Electrical Codes are justified to protect against the danger of fire or structurally unsound buildings, among other things.


Unintended Consequences

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.


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 skateboard parks 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 “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.



Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.


Or email me at: dom[AT]

50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = Hardcover =

My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: is the Enemy book cover

My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:

My Adventures blog

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

My Town & Transportation Planning website

My Plan B blog

My Facebook profile

My YouTube video library

My Picasa Photo library

My Author spotlight



1 Comment

Filed under Miscellaneous, Politics, Urban Design, Walking

One response to “Public Safety and the Law of Unintended Consequences

  1. thanks for sharing Public Safety and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s