You can lead them to technical communication, but you can’t make them think . . . or act to prevent injury and death

When I was in school at the University of Minnesota, I frequently used the 35W bridge that collapsed yesterday evening.

All of my immediate family lives in Minneapolis, and I panicked when I could not reach my mom by phone last night. It turned out that she was calling me at the same time to assure me that everyone in the family was safe and accounted for. But my dad had an appointment in that part of town at 7 pm last night and had been planning to take a route that traveled over that bridge. Close call.

Several people are dead and 20 or 30 more may still be trapped in cars in the debris. The pictures are chilling.

Now it turns out that the Minnesota Dept. of Transportation issued a report citing structural deficiences with the bridge as early as 2001. The warnings were apparently ignored.

According to CNN:

Bridge deficiencies are summarized as “structurally deficient” and “functionally obsolete,” according to the Federal Highway Administration. 

A bridge is tagged structurally deficient when significant bridge elements have deteriorated and the bridge’s load-carrying capacity is reduced . . . .

A bridge is dubbed functionally obsolete when the bridge does not meet current design standards.

Neither label indicates a bridge is unsafe for travel.

“Structurally deficient,” “functionally obsolete.” Are these just words that allow bureaucrats and politicians to file reports and forget about them? Clearly this tragedy could have been prevented.

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4 Responses to You can lead them to technical communication, but you can’t make them think . . . or act to prevent injury and death

  1. James Nightshade says:

    “Structurally deficient,” “functionally obsolete.” Are these just words that allow bureaucrats and politicians to file reports and forget about them? Clearly this tragedy could have been prevented.

    Those are technical engineering terms, not political terms, and they refer to long term usage profiles, not immediate safety of the bridge. Engineers inspected this bridge every few years, and if they found it to be an immediate danger, they would have said so. Obviously they were wrong. Failure to find the problems may or may not have been the fault of the inspecting engineers. There may be problems with the design or construction of a bridge that cannot be discovered in an ordinary inspection.

    Anyway, maybe you would like to be a civil engineer for a few years and be responsible for the safety of hundreds of people or more. Someone has to make these decisions after all.

  2. sandgroper14 says:

    They’re known as ‘weasel words’ and abound in corporations, the military, politics and government, and anywhere that someone needs to ‘spin’ the reality. They’re also an abomination.

    Rhonda

  3. hharkness says:

    James,
    Yes, they are engineering terms. But it was not an engineer who decided that bridges in those categories should not be rebuilt. That was a political decision.

    I’m not blaming the inspectors. They DID find problems with the bridge. Someone else made a decision that it wasn’t serious enough to pursue repairs.

    The same was true of the levees in New Orleans, isn’t it? And a similar thing occurred in the Space Shuttle disaster.

  4. […] Harkness wrote a short post that points the finger at unresponsive politicians, but I think, as technical writers, we have to […]

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