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R 15

Ethical Decisions in Highway Improvements and Engineering
Demetri Lardas (

My Highway Dilemma
I am a civil engineer for the Federal Highway Administration and I am in charge of highway design for Pennsylvania. With the end of the fiscal year approaching I was asked by my boss to design the final project to be funded this year in my area. I know of two possible projects in Western Pennsylvania that would be extremely beneficial to the area unfortunately there is only enough funding in the budget to complete one of the projects. This first is a series of new ramps and express lane on I-376 near Pittsburgh in order to help traffic flow. The second project would be the addition of various safety features (traffic signs, signals, guard rails, etc.) to reduce the number of fatalities on a stretch of I-78 that runs through Lebanon county.
The proposed project on this stretch of road way would benefit a large number of people due to the high volume of traffic the highway sees on a regular basis. This section of I-376 is listed in top 50 most congested highways in the United States and it is estimated that on the worst bottleneck alone causes at least 24 hours of weekly congestion. Reducing congestion and streamlining the flow of traffic through this area will have wide ranging implication throughout the Pittsburgh area. Projections by my peers show that this project will have a considerable economic benefit to the area. Additionally their projections show that this project could pay for itself within three years of completion [1].
This project is projected to greatly reduce the number of traffic fatalities in Lebanon County which is a rural county near Harrisburg. Lebanon County has recently had a reduction in highway fatalities due to new laws and increased policing but it still had a staggering 16 fatalities which is concerning since its population is just over 100,000. Fellow civil engineers feel that this project would reduce the number of deaths by at least 50%. While it is not the most dangerous stretch of highway in the state this project would be beneficial for the overall health and safety of Lebanon County [2].
Ethical Dilemma
While both of these project would be very beneficial there is only enough money to complete one of them so the ethical dilemma I face is choosing which project will be undertaken this year. The project on I-376 would effect a very large population economically and could theoretically increase the amount of money that could be budgeted for other projects in future years. While its full benefit will not be seen immediately this project would have a long term positive effect on the region. On the other hand the I-78 project would have a much more immediate effect on a smaller population. This project would directly save lives by increasing the safety precautions on a very dangerous stretch of road.

In order to solve this dilemma I will take into account the various economic and safety implications of each proposed plan. Addition I will analyze the codes of ethics for The ASCE (American Society for Civil Engineers) and The ICE (Institution of Civil Engineering) to see if they can help to guide my decision on this ethical issue. However, I will not be using the NSPE’s (National Society for Professional Engineers) code of ethics because its cannons are almost identical to those of the ASCE.

Codes of Ethics

In making my decision I looked at the ASCE’s code of ethics for guidance in my decision. I found that the first cannon was the most relevant to my situation, it stated; “Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public and shall strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of their professional duties.” This cannon is very useful in my situation because it gives guidelines as to what type of projects should be done. However, I can use this cannon as support for either plan. Choosing the I-376 plan is supported by this cannon because it would create “sustainable development” by increasing the available funds for projects in subsequent years. Additionally the reduction in traffic and economic boost would increase the “welfare of the public” in the region. One the other hand the I-78 project would have a more direct effect on public safety. This project is not just meant to improve lives, it is meant to save them and this idea is emphasized by the first cannon [3].

The ICE’s Code of Professional Conduct can also help me gain insight into my ethical dilemma. The third rule of this code is especially pertinent to my situation. It states; “All members shall have full regard for the public interest, particularly in relation to matters of health and safety, and in relation to the well-being of future generations.” While it does share the same emphasis on safety as the ASCE’s code of ethics which supports the I-78 plan, I feel that this rule is more supportive of the I-376 plan [4].

First, this rule states that an engineer should act in “full regard for public interest” and just purely based on the number of people that would affected by these plans the I-376 plan would benefit a much larger section of the public. Additionally this rule emphasis that engineers should not only help the current population but they should also act in the interest of future generations. The I-376 plan is meant to benefit the population in the long run by creating more free funds to be used for future projects.

Other Tools
When trying to resolve an ethical issue engineers must look at the future implications of their actions. Even when looking at the Codes of Ethics it is important to look at more than just the immediate consequences of a decision. While a decision may currently seem ethical it could in fact be unethical in the long run. What seems to benefit the public now could in fact be harmful or at least not the most beneficial decision for future years. In the case of my ethical dilemma the I-78 plan creates a very tempting but possibly short sighted ethical decision. While it will immediately reduce the number of fatalities in Lebanon County it could be passing up the opportunity for countless future projects that could be completed with the money save by the I-376 plan [5].

Another important resource that is overlooked by many when making ethical decisions in engineering is intuition. Sometimes the best markers for what constitutes an ethical decision are an engineer’s own gut feeling and personal morality. After all, Codes of Ethics are rooted in a general consensus by engineers for what is moral or immoral. In my personal situation my “gut feeling” is that the I-376 will benefit a much larger population in the long term [6].

Highway Economics
When trying to decide on which project would be most ethical I feel that the ethical codes where very good guidelines because they stated that an engineer’s decisions should always be aimed at improving public safety and welfare. However, in my situation it seems that both decisions would improve public welfare, which makes them both ethical decisions on their own but the problem comes in the fact that I have to choose one over the other. Also, this situation becomes even more ethically charged because it seems to be a choice between saving lives and saving money but this is not necessarily the case. I feel that saving money could intern save more lives than the I-78 plan ever could. Also the I-376 plan would improve public welfare by improving the possibility for economic growth in the region. Through my research I have discovered that streamlining traffic can have countless benefits to public welfare.

The Cost of Traffic
One major benefit that reduced congestion would bring about would be to the drivers themselves. With our economy recovering at its current rate it is projected that by 2020 the average commuter will see a seven hour increase in delays. Additionally it is projected that by 2015 the cost of congestion will jump to $133 billion [7]. These projections show that traffic is becoming very burdensome to the population and in future years it could be detrimental to public welfare. Thus, by reducing congestion around the Pittsburgh area the I-376 project could directly improve public welfare.
Overall Economic Benefit
In recent years the government has put emphasis on transitioning the United States towards a more sustainable manufacturing economy. It is believed that this switch could aid the floundering U.S. economy and greatly benefit the population [8]. Unfortunately our current infrastructure, especially in Pennsylvania, will not be able to handle the stress of such an economy [9]. For an example of what to do we should look to one of the world’s manufacturing powerhouses, China. In recent years China’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) yearly growth has out done the U.S. consistently and sometimes by even more than 10%. Most recently in 2012 China’s growth slowed to 7.6%, this is still far greater than the U.S. GDP growth of 4.9%. Coincidently China also outdoes the United States in another key category, infrastructure spending. While the U.S. spends 2% of GDP on infrastructure China spends and astounding 9% which may account for its greater economic growth [10].

While the I-376 project would not greatly affect the overall all U.S. economy or GDP, it would have profound impact on Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas. Easing congestion would not only improve the mobility of our work force but it would also allow raw materials and finished products to be distributed more efficiently; this in turn would benefit the local economy. Additionally, studies show that in the U.S. one dollar of effective infrastructure spending creates two dollars of economic growth. This means that the money spent on the I-376 project would be doubled in its effect on economic growth [11].

While economic growth does directly increase public welfare, in the case of choosing which project should be funded, economic growth has even father reaching benefits for public welfare and safety. Earlier I discussed how the money predicted to be saved by the I-376 project could be used to complete many more projects than just the I-78 project; economic growth would have the same effect. In a thriving economy more money is available to the government for various public works projects [12]. By focusing on economic growth the I-376 project improves the possibility for more future projects that can benefit public health, safety and welfare.
My Decision
While both projects are necessary and ethically sound I do feel that when having to choose one, there is a more ethical choice. While the codes of ethics helped me come to this point I think that using other sources was an important part of my decision making process too. In order to find the ethical solution I needed to speculate on what the future implication of my choice would be. I felt that the use of economic statistics was an integral part of my process. Even though the I-78 project would reduce highway fatalities in Lebanon County by at least 50% it would not create the greatest possible increase in public health, safety or welfare. I feel that the ethical choice would be the project that had the greatest potential for gross increase in public welfare. This choice would be the I-376 project because it has the potential to create funding for numerous other projects that would greatly benefit the public, in addition to the benefits that would be gained populous from living in a healthier economic climate.
How to make ethical decisions
When assessing an ethical situation engineers have many tools at their disposal. Codes of ethics, speculation on the future, intuition, facts and statistics are all very useful when trying to resolve ethical dilemmas. For some situation ethical decisions are straight forward for example when it come situations like bribery or cutting corners. For these types of situation all an engineer needs are the Code of Ethics, sometimes all that is needed is the intuition and personal morality to know that those actions are wrong and could have disastrous consequences. However, there are some situations in which the ethical decision is more ambiguous, for example the situation of which highway project to fund. In these types of situations engineers must take all factor under consideration and use all available resources in order to come to an informed decision.

First I think it is important to look at whatever code of ethics they fallow. A code of ethics is a good basis for an ethical decision, unfortunately many time there are grey areas that are left up to the interpretation of the engineer. For this reason simply using a code of ethics is not enough so it is necessary to use other available decision making tools. An engineer must also look at the facts and statistics of the project they are working on to see if they can shed any light on the issue. While statistics may seem too cold and mechanical to use when deciding the ethics of a situation they actually serve as a very good way to rationalize a decision. I feel that the most important thing engineers should keep in mind when assessing whether a situation is ethical is that; the decision should be made to fit what it means to be ethical. Under no circumstances should an engineer try to manipulate what it means to be ethical in order to fit their decision.

[1] D. Whistler (2011) “Ranking the nation’s most congested highway corridors” Fleet Owner

[2] Lebanon Daily News Staff (April 2013) “PENNDOT: Pa. highway deaths in 2012 third lowest on record” Lebanon Daily News

[3] ASCE (2013) “Code of Ethics” American Society of Civil Engineers

[4] ICE (2013) “Code of Professional Conduct”

[5] N. Cadieux (2009) “Professional ethics and ethics in engineering” Industrial Relations p.307

[6] C. Bauer (May 2010) “Construction ethics: 7 tips on Ethical Practices” Construction Business Owner

[7] Texas A&M Transportation Institute (September 27, 2011) “Traffic Problems Tied to the Economy, Study Says”

[8] B. Obama (July 25,2013) “Infrastructure and the Economy.” Given in: Jacksonville, Florida

[9] H. Shatz, K. Kitchens, S Rosenbloom (May 2011) “Highway Infrastructure and the Economy : Implications for Federal PolicyRAND Corporation

[10] E. Kurtenbach (December, 2010) “U.S. Infrastructure Spending Falling Far Behind China, Emerging Economies”

[11] L. Kawa (November 2012) “STUDY: Every $1 Of Infrastructure Spending Boosts The Economy By $2” Business Insider

Read more:

[12] B. King (September-October 2006) “A strong economy rides on a strong transportation infrastructure: a metro area's logistics infrastructure is an indication of a region's ability to support a manufacturing economy” Expansion Management
Additional Sources
J. Terwillger (August 2002) “Infrastructure is 'in'” FrontLine Solutions

W. Wulf (2004) “Engineering ethics and society” Technology and Science Entering the 21st Century

I would like to thank Trevor for helping me work through the writing process.

University of Pittsburgh, Swanson School of Engineering


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