By Dom Nozzi
August 20, 2016
After three years of trying, I have finally been given the opportunity to give a presentation to the Boulder transportation advisory board – of which I have been a member. The topic will be on traffic safety, and I will be making the presentation in either early September or early October.
I decided one point I’d like to make is that if anything, streets have become much less safe than they were in the past – despite decades of often aggressive, extensive, expensive safety efforts. This morning, I looked for a chart showing the trend in the number of annual deaths on US roadways. I have included a few charts from Wikipedia in this blog. “Annual Traffic Deaths” shows the crazy high number of annual deaths.
But the “Annual Deaths Per Mile Driven” chart shows that we are making a lot of progress on safety! I was surprised and realized I’d have to revise my presentation.
Then I came across a “Traffic Deaths” essay.
I learned from the essay that several decades ago, the auto folks needed to find a way to address the great alarm on the part of many Americans when they saw the huge number of traffic deaths. The solution to this PR problem – to head off serious efforts to reduce car dependence in our society – was to convey deaths based on MILES DRIVEN. It turns out that applying “miles driven” as a way to measure deaths is quite misleading. After all, if we used miles traveled, the space shuttle would be the “safest” way to travel…
Using that metric, the auto folks were able to reduce alarm (and meaningful efforts to reduce car dependence), because the metric shows improving traffic safety. Now we can sidestep the thought that 30,000 to 40,000 traffic deaths per year is barbaric (and demands our society reduce car use) and instead focus safety on individual motorist mistakes or mechanical solutions (which does almost nothing to correct this shocking, unacceptable road carnage problem).
One of my points about traffic safety is that our forgiving roadway design induces dangerous and growing levels of inattentive driving and excessive speeding. I believe inattentive driving and speeding are epidemic mostly because of our decades of employing forgiving roadway design. But if this is true, why does the chart show a decline in deaths since 1970?
My explanation is that while roads ARE more dangerous today than in the past, much of the reduction in deaths is associated with making cars (and, therefore, the motorists inside them) safer with such things as seat belts, air bags, and aggressive efforts against drunk driving – not to mention our removing a lot of trees and other “hazards” from near the side of roads.
I found another chart that shows a big increase in bicyclist deaths since the 1970s. That can partly be explained, I guess, by the growth in cycling since then, but I think it is also compatible with my belief that roads are more dangerous today. Motorists are safer in certain ways, but the growth in inattentiveness and speeding are leading to motorists killing more people bicycling.
In sum, it is clear to me that our roads need to be substantially redesigned to obligate slower, more attentive driving by motorists through various traffic calming, as well as reductions in the size of roadways and intersections. More warning signs, warning lights, warning paint, warning education, and warning enforcement has utterly failed to make our streets safe.
It is way past time to get serious and redesign our appallingly dangerous roadway system.