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Opinion: Lessons learned in reducing train deaths in India can help us keep democracy on track

Oct 5, 2022

We must be the people painting yellow stripes and sounding warning blasts that alert Americans to the danger

More than a few of us are convinced that the authoritarian threat to democracy is real and serious. It seems to be bearing down on us like an unstoppable locomotive. Some believe the train is moving slowly and that there is enough time to warn others.

In Republican-dominated Western Colorado, it will take Democrats, Republicans and independents working together to stop political extremism. Yet many Republicans here, who privately say they are against extremism, are publicly silent. They are afraid they will lose business, or lose friends, or lose the next election. Instead, some just hope extremism will go away on its own, like the flu. Others think they can finesse change by electing a few good people and quietly make changes without confronting extremism directly.

In reality, the train is moving faster than we think. As Politico reports, many Republicans are planning ways to obstruct 2022 voting. In Michigan, there are plans to train volunteers to challenge voters in Democrat-majority precincts. At the same time, Republican-friendly district attorneys may attempt to block vote counts in those same precincts.

In Pennsylvania, Doug Mastriano, Republican candidate for governor, says that if elected, he will have the power to decertify a democratic victory just by saying he thinks fraud occurred. Other Republicans are making similar plans.

But the railway system in India can teach us what must be done.

In Mumbai, India, about 10 years ago, 10 people a day died getting hit by trains while crossing tracks. The government, after several failed attempts at solving the problem, turned to Final Mile, a group organized around behavioral economics and neuroscience.

Final Mile dug in and studied how the deaths were occurring. They reviewed the safety strategies used. Then they came up with three important insights and three life-saving solutions.

First, people were hit not because they didn’t see the train coming, but because of something called the Leibowitz hypothesis that says people cannot accurately gauge the speed of oncoming large objects.

As a solution, Final Mile had groups of railway ties painted at places where people were crossing the tracks. They painted every other tie with bright yellow paint, creating a series of bright yellow stripes. The stripes attracted attention, and as the train approached and hit the striping, the brain was able to understand how fast the train was moving. People then stayed out of the way.

Second was signage. The existing, ineffective text-based warning signs were scrapped. In its place were posters with a close-up photo of an actual person, capturing the horror on their faces the moment before they were hit by the train. People got the message. They didn’t need to know the “victim” was actually an actor.

Finally, the Final Mile neuroscientists recommended changing the way train engineers used their warning horns. A study showing that brain attention peaks during the gap between two musical notes, led to a recommendation that train engineers change the one long warning blast they were using to two short blasts, awakening the brain with the second blast.

As a result, the 10 deaths a day along Mumbai’s rail system were reduced to about one.

What does this have to do with saving democracy here? Yes, it’s a metaphor. But once we recognize that events are moving faster than we originally thought, we can take action. We must be the people painting the stripes, creating the posters, and producing those warning blasts alerting people to the danger. Here is what we must do:

  • Western Colorado progressives must be willing to give up some agenda items now in order to join with Republicans and moderate independents.

  • Moderates must be willing to work with liberals and conservatives and make their priority saving democracy.

  • All must support candidates – regardless of party – who are willing to speak up and speak out against political extremism.

And finally, we must understand the best time to save democracy is before we lose it.

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