People tell me that one of their favorite stories in Goal Play! is about the path taken by Bill Geary, a former commissioner in the Massachusetts state government, to eliminate a public safety hazard on the roadways subject to his jurisdiction.  Pushing aside bureaucratic inertia, Bill displayed excellent leadership skills and creativity.  The problem:

When Bill Geary took over as Commissioner of the Metro­politan District Commission (the regional parks and roadway agency for the Boston area) in 1983, he noticed an odd traffic phenomenon. About once a week, a truck that was too tall would enter one of the two main roads along the Charles River and attempt to go through the underpasses below the main bridge crossing at Massachusetts Avenue. Those underpasses had only ten feet of headroom. The truck would hit the bottom of the bridge assembly, its roof would roll up like the top of a sardine can, and it would get stuck, blocking one or both of the two lanes of traffic. Traffic would back up two miles or more. The MDC police and road crews would go to work, rescue the truck driver, deflate the tires, and tow the truck away. Meanwhile, thousands of drivers would be delayed.

His solution:  Hang rubber signs at the entrance to each roadway at the level of the underpasses, accompanied by cow bells to signal to drivers that they had hit the signs.  Here’s a picture:


This past weekend, a too-tall bus full of schoolchildren hit one of the underpasses, injuring many people.  I happened to be along the route of the bus the next day and drove by and noticed that the rubber sign was missing.  I wrote a blog post explaining “why the bus crashed.”  This and subsequent posts made the point that systemic errors within the state agency were likely the cause of this accident, much more so than the actions of the bus driver.

5Feb13 022Our local public radio station, WBUR, picked up the story and asked me to come by and explain.  Here I am with host Meghna Chakrakarti presenting the story on air today.  You can listen to the interview here.

A theme of Goal Play! is to be hard on the problem when mistakes occur, and not hard on the people.  It is all too easy to apply blame to individuals.  But here, as in the hospital world, the phrase, “what happened to him could happen to anybody,” is usually evidence of a systemic problem, not a personal problem.