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The Town That Loved Ambulances

A modern fable of how a town came to be dependent on one industry and then diversified through economic development.

by Jim Britell

Once upon a time there was a little town that was very poor. The largest employer in the town was the local ambulance service. The drivers and the medical technicians who worked for the ambulance service had steady, good-paying jobs. The reason the ambulance business thrived was because there were no stop signs at school crossings. Children were often run over on their way to and from school.

After a while, the parents who had lost children noticed this pattern of accidents and began a letter writing and public information campaign to persuade the city council to install more stop signs to make the school crossings safe. Little did they know what they were up against or what they were getting into. The town was an "accident dependent" community.

When the parents voiced their concerns about the traffic accidents, they were told that stop signs were merely one part of a comprehensive traffic-management plan and to allow a few people to walk in after the plan was completed and change it was undemocratic and most unfair to all the citizens who had commented on the original plan when it was being developed. But the parents who by then had begun to organize, were assured their concerns about specific intersections could be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

But when the parents identified specific places where accidents had happened, they were told it wasn't cost effective to put up and take down expensive signs willy-nilly based on speculations about where future accidents might or might not occur. And after accidents actually occurred, they were told it was probably too late to do anything about that particular intersection, however the information would be included in future traffic management plan revisions.

Later, the merger of the two second grade classes due to their dwindling class size, provoked the parents, some wearing black arm-bands, to meet with the newspaper's editor to complain. The paper published an editorial demanding action. The city council's response was immediate. Overnight the town put up stop signs everywhere; except where the children actually crossed streets. Not long after the stop signs were installed the mayor took a reporter on a tour of the town and the reporter wrote a feature story about bureaucratic and unrealistic federal highway rules that bankrupted small towns and burdened local trucking. The local debate about stop signs was only mentioned far down in the article and dismissed by quoting an unnamed source who said that complaints about accidents were mainly from people who didn't even live in the town, didn't have kids, and probably watched too many car crash movies.

Eventually the city council had to respond to the continual and increasingly strident voices of the parents. It was announced that the Mayor would appoint an impartial, high-level, child safety task-force to study accident rates and their relationship to the town's economy. The study was headed up by the president of the ambulance company and included the pharmacist, the tire dealer, the president of the Chamber of Commerce (who had two kids) and the undertaker who by a stroke of good fortune, had a degree in urban planning. The mayor didn't appoint any of the complaining parents to the task force because, he said, their radical views were well-known and he wanted win-win solutions, not more polarization.

The task force discovered the state Transportation Department had detailed statistics covering the weekend and holiday accidents for the last twenty-five years. Analysis of the data found their town had the best child safety record of any town its size in the state; although a slight upward trend in recent years was noted. Past and present aerial photographs were compared to get accurate child counts at intersections, and based on this, the task force concluded there were actually more children in the town at present, than at any time in the past.

A computer program that measured Total Net Community Benefits (TNCB) showed that the economic benefits to children of the ambulance company employees drivers were so great that these benefits more than offset any costs imposed on the town by a few accident victims who were left "medically challenged". In fact, accidents contributed positively to a sound local economy. One of the key findings in the report was straightforward; stating:

"Computer projections from pseudo-stratified random samples and post-accident analysis, proved to the assurance of this committee, that the projected lifetime aggregate earnings for child accident victims were as high or higher than for accident-free children. Further, when demortalization vectors, - the projected lifetime earnings of the organ transplant recipients who otherwise would have died, are included a Net Positive Community Benefit (NPCB) from sustaining the current accident experience rate is evident."

Moreover, they noted, it was important for long-term, sustainable economic growth that the population distribution of the town's various age cohorts be in balance. By a stroke of good fortune, a recent elevation in child mortality appeared to have normalized the age distribution away from the worrisome skewing towards younger age groups.

In its conclusion, the study said, "there is just so much we don't know about the relationship of the city's economic stability to accidents" and called for increased funding to study this subject.

To follow up on this promising report, the state funneled research money to the local junior college. The parents watched in amazement, but with some optimism, as the college grew into a major university on the strength of its undergraduate, and then graduate program in urban traffic analysis.

At first the parents liked having graduate students with their clipboards standing on all the street corners collecting data. But after a while, it became clear that the graduate students maintained a very strict professional and uninvolved attitude with what they called their "data points". They would not even summon an ambulance for fear of distorting their data. However they did provide incredibly accurate times of deaths in a few hit and run cases.

The Graduate School of Traffic Analysis, Design, and Regional Economic Development turned out study after study proving child welfare was positively correlated with the number of ambulance 911 calls, and that stop sign density was negatively correlated with all sorts of positive things.

When parents pleaded with the university's traffic safety researchers to help them find a way to reduce the accidents, the academics were sympathetic, but politely refused. Yes, their children were being run over too, but no, they would not become involved. Their job was merely to publish the facts. What the policy makers did with the facts was not the university's responsibility. Besides, criticizing the accident rate would be counter-productive. That might reduce funding and anything that reduced funding for professionals was unprofessional.

Finally, in protest, some parents all wearing black arm-bands and lying down in intersections brought traffic to a halt. A few distributed leaflets alleging financial ties and substantial campaign contributions between the ambulance company and the mayor and the governor. The main result of this protest was to outrage and rally the local newspaper, the Chamber of Commerce, and the city council. They said the real problem was not the traffic intersections at all, but rather insensitive outsiders and newcomers who deliberately broke laws just to deprive honest hardworking citizens of their jobs and cause trouble. Finally the parents, feeling they had no alternative filed a lawsuit against the city and the judge eventually issued an injunction that barred cars from school crossing intersections during school hours.The city was ordered to develop a new traffic management plan. The parents were delighted that the judge, clearly angry, said in his decision, "the city has deliberately and systematically violated the state traffic regulations."

After the injunction, the accidents stopped, but so did the traffic. The town was in a traffic gridlock that extended for miles around. Nothing moved while school was in session. This situation continued for several months.

Fortunately, around this time, the governor of the state, who had never been the last bit sympathetic to the parents, ran for reelection. The parents contacted the other candidate and found him extremely sympathetic to their concerns. Actually he never came right out and said he would put up stop signs, but he did give a speech about the need to protect children and get the traffic flowing again. The parents were hopeful and they enthusiastically worked on the challenger's campaign. He won. Soon thereafter, he announced he would visit the town to hold a summit on traffic safety.

As the time for the summit approached, the newly elected governor sent his top aides to the town to do fact-finding and advance work. The parents noticed with some alarm, that the aides seemed to spend a lot of time inspecting ambulances and having their pictures taken with "ambulance dependent" families. The aides said, "We have to move forward and we have to work together to find win-win " solutions." In a press conference one said, "We must avoid unproductive finger pointing; however mistakes were obviously made."

"But, the parents retorted, the mayor and his ambulance friends have never admitted they made a single mistake. They say the only problem is our protests and their lack of legal authority to clear us out of the streets to end the gridlock."

The summit came and went. Probably because of the way the summit's agenda was structured, the financial connections between the ambulance company and the mayor and the ex-governor never came to light. A few parents complained they spent the whole day with flip charts, in various small breakout groups, with a facilitator working on insignificant aspects of the problem. Because of one thing or another (i.e. the lunch break went way overtime) the parents never got a chance to directly address their problems to the people who could actually do something to solve them. However, later, some of the parents' friends at the capitol, reassured them by saying they should be happy the whole state finally was focusing on their traffic problems; on how their town needed jobs; and on what great kids they had. They told the parents to just keep hanging in there; that they were doing a great job.

Soon after the summit, the new governor appointed a working group under a consultant to study the problem and come up with a compromise solution. A variety of solutions were rumored; for example the parents would get half the stop signs they demanded, or all the stop signs they wanted, but only on alternate days. Rumors circulated about a prototype computer-managed control system, where stop signs and streetlights would somehow be physically moved in response to traffic flows. Nothing came of these ideas.

In the end, the consultant's report concluded that the basic problem was not the accidents at all, but the need for economic development. An economic-diversification program was proposed to broaden the economic base of the town and facilitate its transition away from an "accident-based" economy. Two exciting projects funded with grants and low interest loans were proposed. The first, building a state-of-the-art plant to process fish from a local river into colorful golf balls for export to Japan. The second plan was a public utility infrastructure upgrade.

The consultant explained the plans to the citizens as she unfolded the large complicated zoning maps, "All this land outside of town, that the ambulance company owns, turns out to be zoned commercial in your city's comprehensive plan, but unfortunately it lacks water and sewer so it is now practically worthless. It lacks, what we call, infrastructure, so the land is now virtually unusable. When the state funds the economic development plan it proposes, this property will have sewer and water lines installed at no expense to the city. With a few million dollars of sewer and water pipes, and an upgrade of your sewer plant capacity, you'll see industrial parks, condos, and maybe even a destination resort!"

In no time the parents got most of the stop signs they wanted; the president of the ambulance company and his friends got a RV-destination, theme park and timeshare condominium development; the town got a fish processing plant that provided twenty part-time, minimum-wage jobs; real estate prices continued to rise; and the professors got consulting contracts with other towns.

The mayor and the governor were reelected with enormous margins. Everyone lived happily ever after.

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