I've never been a big numbers guy.
Part of that is because high school math classes were never my strong suit — ask any of my teachers — but I also distrust them when I see them bandied about. It's said that numbers don't lie, but that's only because they don't speak up for themselves; instead, they exist as neutral tools, capable of being bent, abused and exploited for the benefit of anyone who needs them to be used as such. Sometimes, data is corrupted simply because it's in the hands of those who think their approach to the data is best.
You see something like this played out, I believe, in the situation regarding the Eubank intersection situation. There are two factors at play here: the data and the people.
And those who focus on the data ignore perhaps the most important factor in the equation: the human element.
On Thursday night, Kentucky Transportation Cabinet personnel and engineers came to a community meeting in Eubank and pitched their plan for an RCUT system to alleviate the danger of the intersection of Ky. 70 and U.S. 27, where a number of terrible traffic accidents have happened over the years — including recently, with two local teenagers. The battle with their injuries captured the community; on Friday, Carlee Whitis tragically succumbed to hers.
The ramifications of car accidents are emotional things. What happened to Carlee Whitis and Ethan Carter is an emotional thing. And the people who came to talk to an emotional Eubank crowd were armed only with the one thing that truly annoys and fails to reach people who are emotional: cold, unfeeling numbers.
I wasn't there but from what I heard, the meeting in Eubank on Thursday didn't go so well. Perhaps most disturbingly, it wasn't a chance for the state to listen to the community at all. Oh, they heard them, but they didn't listen. They were too busy with PowerPoint presentations and pre-prepared numbers. That's just what a small, salt-of-the-earth community like Eubank responds to — a good, old-fashioned PowerPoint presentation.
The experts explained all about the RCUT and how the numbers show it works best and how it worked. The best way I know how to describe it is similar to a story my dad told me when I was little about fictional characters descending an M.C. Escher-like staircase inside a tree — you go up and down, and down and around, and around, and around ... something like that. It also greatly inconveniences those trying to cross from one side of Ky. 70 to the other by essentially blocking off one side of the road from the other.
What most people seem to want there is a traffic light. A simple, easy-to-understand traffic light.
I'll admit, I'm not fond of that idea, speaking purely personally. I'm usually driving to and from Lexington, and like being able to zip through. I've never found the intersection particularly difficult to navigate — but I will also fully admit that I'm never trying to cross straight over from one side of Ky. 70 to the other, and only rarely do I turn northbound left at 70 to go to Eubank City Park for events. So I don't doubt that the people who live in this area and do it all the time have a better feel for it than I do. If the people of Eubank want a stoplight, I'd say they probably know what they're talking about.
Is it a perfect solution? No, people run red lights. But we know how to interact with them. We do it all the time.
And that's an important factor here — familiarity.
In relying solely on numbers, engineers and state government types ignore the human element, which must be accounted for.
What's being proposed is complicated. Recently, there was a video of a roundabout in eastern Kentucky that went viral because of all the people using it incorrectly and going the wrong way. We can sit at home and laugh at people for being dumb, but the truth is, people in that part of the country aren't used to that kind of design.
And when you're on the road, you need to be able to make split-second decisions. You need to have a comfort level with what you're doing. If you're having to think about it, if you're indecisive, that's how accidents happen. Putting in an RCUT — which sounds more like something a butcher would sell for you to take home and cook — is going to be more complicated for drivers than a simple stoplight. That, we understand. That, we can do.
If something needs to be done at that intersection, then the traffic light is the clear selection for actual human beings. Leave the data for the computers. It ain't the computers driving the cars.
I think the people of Eubank might have felt a little betrayed at the meeting. They probably thought they'd get to voice their concerns about their community. Instead, they got a bunch of people from outside that community coming in, telling them, "This is what we're doing, get used to it," and nothing was accomplished other than just angering the people who are going to have to deal with this mess.
That might be the worst thing about the approach the Transportation muckety-mucks took — making it clear this was happening, whether the people here like it or not.
It's a much-used saying but a good one: Don't stay invested in a mistake because you spent a long time making it. I'm sure a lot of money and a lot of planning went into this whole RCUT thing, but it hasn't happened yet. It may grind the gears of government to bring a halt to the thing now, but within the realm of physical reality, it's still possible. Once they get going working on it, it won't be. Now is the time to listen to the Eubank citizens, bail out, and call an audible.
The numbers say that the RCUT's the thing. But man does not live by data alone. The human element is what gets lost in the statistics, and in a situation like this one, it may be the most important factor to consider.