Tag Archives: distracted driving

Why Are Traffic Deaths So Barbarically High?

By Dom Nozzi

February 21, 2017

It is inexcusable that when we look at traffic fatalities — and the all-too-common call to reduce the number of fatalities with “safer” cars — we ignore the huge number of bicyclists and pedestrians killed by motorists.

As my op-ed in the Boulder (Colorado) Daily Camera noted recently, despite a century of “redoubling our efforts” every few years to make our roads safer for cyclists and pedestrians, our roads are the most dangerous than they have ever been. Adding more road caution signsWARNING signs, WARNING paint, WARNING education, WARNING enforcement, and WARNING lights (as Boulder is once again proposing to do this year) has done nothing meaningful to make roads safer (many persuasively argue such things make our roads LESS safe).

But I’ll ignore cyclist and pedestrian deaths for the time being.

It is quite common for someone to point to an increase (or decrease) in traffic fatalities suffered by motorists and their passengers over the past year as indicative of a long-term trend – and what has allegedly caused the “trend.” But statistical principles and the complexity of transportation inform us that taking a one-year data point – and then applying a single variable to explain it – is highly unlikely to be accurate. Not nearly enough time has elapsed. And there are way too many variables when it comes to transportation.

An extremely important question I want to ask, rather than trying to explain a one-year change in fatalities, is why motorist deaths have been barbarically high for so long. The US has suffered over 30,000 traffic deaths per year since the 1930s.

And no one seems to care, when we compare concern about traffic deaths to the hysteria about drugs and terrorists and communists…

How have we gotten to this state of affairs?

First, the vast majority of motorists/Americans/elected officials have one objective that is light years more important than safety or quality of community: SPEED. Anything that slows motorists down — such as traffic congestion, road diets, traffic calming, etc. — must be furiously fought against with any and all means necessary.maxresdefault

Even in allegedly enlightened and progressive Boulder, free-flowing, high-speed car travel is head and shoulders above almost anything else as a measure of quality of life.

This single-minded focus explains why cities such as Boulder have a huge number of roads that have way too many travel lanes. Anything more than 3 is incompatible with a quality city, yet Boulder has many roadways (stroads, as Chuck Marohn would call them) that are in the 6- to 12- lane range. Anything more than 3 or 4 lanes is inevitably a recipe for a huge number of car crashes and fatalities.

More of the same thing all American communities have been doing for a century — more WARNING signs, more WARNING paint, more WARNING education, more WARNING enforcement, and more WARNING lights — will do nothing to make such monster roads anything other than on-going death traps.

Yet this same old song and dance is precisely what Boulder proposes to do as it rolls out its exciting “new” objective called “Toward Vision Zero.”

Excuse me for not being optimistic about Boulder not achieving this objective.

A related problem for almost every city — including Boulder — is the century-long use of the “forgiving road” design paradigm, which “forgives” the motorist for driving too fast or not paying attention. Using the “forgiving street” strategy, we remove street trees, make intersections and turn radii crazy big in size, create “super-elevations” at road turns, remove on-street parking, eliminate mid-block pedestrian crossings, move cyclists onto off-street paths, pull buildings away from the street and street corners, etc.

The result?

For several decades, we’ve had an epidemic of excessive speeds and inattentive driving. A great way to ramp up the death toll.

Most cities – to enable easy, high-speed car travel — have followed the path Boulder has taken over the past century regarding land use patterns by keeping densities at ridiculously low levels and strictly separated houses from shops and jobs and offices.

The result?

Distances to daily destinations are extremely lengthy, which makes it impossible for all but a tiny number of people to make ALL trips by car. That guarantees a large number of annual motorist deaths, as driving a car is inherently very dangerous — due to the fact that cars are heavy, large, able to achieve high speeds, and substantially reduce the sense of hearing and sight that a motorist has outside of a car.

One example of a destination that is now nowhere near any homes is an iconic social gathering place: the pub. Unlike in past times, it is now almost impossible to walk or bike home after having a few beers. Inevitably, that means a lot of people are driving in an inebriated state.

The “forgiving street” design paradigm has so substantially increased inattentiveness that a huge number of motorists now drive inattentively at high speeds. Again, a great way to ensure a huge number of motorists crashing and dying.

Americans are extremely busy – probably a lot more so than in the past – and the motor vehicle provides a way to save time: drive very fast. Oops. Another way to kill people in car crashes.

Solutions? The effective tactics are nearly impossible to achieve in almost any city – including Boulder — where 98 percent of the population will fight to the death to stop these safety measures from being enacted:

  1. More compact, mixed-use land use patterns so that travel distances are short enough to make walking and bicycling feasible for most people and most trips.
  2. Toss out the forgiving street paradigm in favor of designing streets that obligate slower, attentive driving.
  3. Substantially shrink the size of nearly every road and intersection.road diet before and after

But each of these essential tasks (if we are serious about achieving Vision Zero) is utterly off the table – not even something that one is allowed to mention in “polite society.”

Much of what I advocate in transportation is an “off the table” topic. My friend Jim Kunstler just pointed out that this “elephant in the bedroom” syndrome has a name. It is called the Overton Bubble.

http://thefutureprimaeval.net/the-overton-bubble/

In sum, because we are probably decades away from having the political will to opt for effective street safety methods, we will continue to see over 30,000 American motorists die every year for the remainder of our lives.

After all, speed — not safety — is what we sincerely seek.

 

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The Deadly Stew of Transportation

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 18, 2017

American society mixes together a deadly stew in transportation: We combine forgiving road design (which forgives motorists for not paying attention) with very busy lives (which inevitably induces an epidemic of motorist speeding), sleep deprivation (which inevitably leads to falling asleep at the wheel), and a car-dependent community design (which obligates most of us to drive for all our trips — and putting all those huge, heavy, high-speed metal boxes on our roads inevitably creates frustration because all the boxes of our fellow citizens are always congesting roads).

Instead of continuing our century-long, single-minded effort to maximize the speed of cars (and therefore condition motorists to expect high-speed driving), we need to more universally design our street system to obligate slower and more attentive driving forgiving(thereby conditioning motorists to expect slower speed driving — at least in cities).

Forgiving street design is not the ONLY cause of distracted, high-speed, angry driving, but I believe it counterproductively amplifies existing societal problems, such as the desire to live in dispersed, car-dependent living arrangements. Forgiving street design makes dangerous driving more frequent.

We have ramped up education and enforcement efforts every few years since the 1920s to fight dangerous driving, yet we probably have more distracted, speeding, angry driving than ever before. Even if those levels are not the highest ever, they are certainly unacceptably high today.

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Are Cell Phones the Main Cause of a Recent Increase in Traffic Fatalities?

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 1, 2017

It is surprisingly difficult to isolate causes of crash/fatality trends in driving. One source has made the persuasive case a while back that the only good correlation we can find is based on the health of the national economy, of all things.

In any event, pointing to something like cell phones is a “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” method that distracts people from a major cause of crashes: our roads are shockingly dangerous in how they are designed. And this follows over 100 16598647019_2c1634cb89_zyears of annual campaigns to make roads safer. Talk about a failed track record. Talk about a need to change course on our efforts to improve safety…

The US has seen over 30,000 people die on the roads EACH YEAR since the 1940s. Cell phones did not arrive until the 80s or 90s. The number of annual deaths is a crazy high number and should be utterly unacceptable to any civilized society. Given the American love of the death penalty, our failure to adopt universal health care, our 240 years of being a Warrior Nation, and our abusive criminal justice system, a great case can be made that the good old USA is one of the most uncivilized nations in human history (probably at least partly due, ironically, to our high level of religious belief – which is infamous for inspiring hatred, violence, and intolerance).

I agree that cell phones (and many other distractors) are very dangerous for a driver to engage in while driving. But we need to keep our eye on the ball. We’ve had over 100 years of failed efforts to make driving safe.

In sum, if no driver ever used a cell phone again, we’d STILL be seeing over 30,000 traffic fatalities in the US each year.

In my view, successfully reducing the number of drivers distracted by cell phone use is unlikely to produce the safety benefits we expect. Efforts to point to cell phones as a silver bullet solution to making our roads significantly safer is quite likely to distract us from the much more important, pressing fact that our car-happy transportation system is inherently deadly (largely due to car-happy, “forgiving” road design and a dispersed land use pattern that requires us to drive everywhere — and at high speeds).

 

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