By Dom Nozzi
June 26, 2016
I respect and appreciate the concerns people have about traffic safety. I share the concern and am extremely motivated to leverage it to see that communities adopt meaningful measures to increase traffic safety.
One relatively recent, encouraging initiative that has emerged in places such as New York City is known as “Vision Zero,” which strives to reduce the number of traffic fatalities and serious crashes each year to zero.
Speaking as someone who has worked academically and professionally in transportation for about 35 years, I must be honest and say that I don’t believe stiffer criminal/civil penalties would be effective. Yet this is a very common tactic that is urged to increase traffic safety.
I am quite convinced that the main cause of the many traffic fatalities and serious crashes (and road danger in general) is due to our communities being afflicted with oversized streets and intersections. Those factors, in combination with several decades of traffic planners designing “forgiving” streets and installing an overwhelming number of “safety” measures (such as road paint, signage, lights, etc.) have created a huge traffic safety problem in our communities. These factors have induced an enormous amount of excessive driving speeds and a lot of inattentive driving. Those two features are deadly when motorists so often drive that way (and they drive that way largely because of the road design we have put in place — ironically, mostly in the name of safety).
Unless communities starts getting serious about incrementally installing and retrofitting road designs that will effectively reduce driving speeds and inattentiveness (and transportation professionals are well aware of what those designs consist of), I don’t believe we will see any meaningful reduction in road deaths.
Frankly, I don’t believe that law enforcement measures would help much at all on this very important problem. Many communities have adopted quite aggressive enforcement measures for several decades, yet they (and nearly all other communities) have seen road safety continue to worsen over those decades.
I question whether fear of severe penalties would effectively and comprehensively motivate drivers to drive slower and more attentively. Let’s face it: Most of us are very busy, stressed and exhausted. If we design streets so they are too big and forgive us for, say, multitasking while we drive, most of us will drive too fast (to save precious time) and be inattentive — particularly if the road design enables that sort of driving. Penalties can never been applied for more than a tiny number of infractions, so even if the penalties are severe, most are unlikely to be deterred.
Enforcement is common because it is comparatively quick, easy and cheap, but it took us about a century to get to where we are today. It will therefore take us a long time to start ratcheting down the real causes of road safety problems: oversizing and designing for inattentiveness.