Tag Archives: traffic deaths

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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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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Is Traffic Calming Unsafe?

 

By Dom Nozzi

November 1, 2016

On October 5th, David Wagner alleged in the Boulder CO Daily Camera that traffic calming (which uses street design to slow cars to safe speeds) does not improve safety, yet significantly degrades fire safety (due to slower response times).

This is a red herring.

A study by Peter Swift conducted in Longmont CO found that when cities use excessive dimensions for roads to reduce fire truck response times, there is a net LOSS in overall safety.

Why?

Because those road dimensions lead to a large increase in car crashes, and the number of injuries and deaths caused by that increase in car crashes far exceeds any decrease in fire injuries/deaths due to allegedly slower fire truck response times. Dan Burden – a national traffic calming expert and son of a fire chief – disputes the claim that fire truck response 8330087time is significantly slowed. Boulder would benefit from having Burden conduct a traffic calming audit with the Boulder fire department, and demonstrate designs that slow cars without slowing fire trucks.

Swift’s study shows that safety is far better served when a community focuses on the much broader question of LIFE SAFETY rather than the subset of FIRE SAFETY.

Something not easy to measure in studies: When car speeds are not slowed by traffic calming measures, a large number of potential bicyclists and pedestrians are deterred from biking or walking (particularly children and seniors) due to perceived danger of high car speeds. Conversely, slow car speeds effectively recruit large numbers of cyclists and peds. Studies show that a society where there is less walking and cycling — and the more driving — public health declines and deaths increase.

The Transportation Advisory Board has been inundated with dozens of emails from citizens throughout the city pleading for the Board to calm their neighborhood streets due to dangerous speeding and cut-through traffic.

They would beg to differ with Mr. Wagner’s remarks.

 

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What Are the Obstacles to Making Our Streets Safer?

 

By Dom Nozzi

July 1, 2016

There have been a great many traffic injuries and deaths in the Boulder area in recent weeks. This is a terrible tragedy and tracks what is happening nationally. If we are to call ourselves a civilized society, there are effective things we must do to make our streets safer.

A very large percentage of neighborhood streets in Boulder (and the region) are excessively wide, which induces excessive driving speeds and dangerously inattentive driving. Boulder needs to redesign many of these streets if there is to be any chance of making the city street system anywhere near safe. Good tactics are the common and effective traffic calming measures which narrow the street (yet still allow acceptable emergency vehicle response times), including the use of slow streets, give-way streets, and shared streets. low-speed-streetEach of those designs deliver slow design speeds which are crucial for neighborhood safety and quality of life. A quick, easy and low-cost way to create slower, more attentive neighborhood streets is to allow and encourage a lot more on-street car parking, in addition to bulb-outs, traffic circles and chicanes. Slow speed neighborhood streets not only dramatically improve neighborhood quality of life and safety. They also effectively promote more walking, bicycling and sociable neighborhood interactions.

An extremely common suggestion to address dangerous speeding is to lower speed limits. But mounting signs with lower speed limits, as traffic engineers know, is highly ineffective unless we also redesign the street. The typical motor vehicle speeds are generated by the design speed of the street rather than speed limit signs (which are so commonly disregarded that many derisively call them “suggested” speed limits). It is also unfair to the motorist to install a speed limit sign that is far below the street design speed. When the street design strongly encourages motorists to drive at higher speeds than the speed limit, a large number of speeding violations and tickets result.

I have been a bicycle commuter in a great many cities in the US, and in my opinion, the state highways in Boulder (in particular, Broadway, Canyon, and 28th St) are among the most hostile, deadly state roads I have ever bicycled or walked. The state highways in Boulder are death traps not only for bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users, but also motorists. Those streets (and their huge intersections) are too big and therefore too high speed to be located within a city. It is important to note that city health is promoted with slow speeds, so these state highways are undermining the quality of life in Boulder.

The fierce opposition to the Folsom Street reconfiguration project in 2015, as well as opposition to other safety and quality of life street redesign measures such as the traffic calming program in the 1990s, suggests that many in the Boulder population are not ready to accept enactment of street designs which effectively improve street safety and quality of life.

Even in Boulder, it is nearly impossible for the vast majority to travel anywhere without a car. American cities (including Boulder) are designed so that regular, safe, convenient travel by bicycle, walking, or transit is out of the question for almost all of us (mostly because roads are too big and distances are too large). That means, inevitably, that large numbers of people are obligated to drive a car even though it is too dangerous for them to do so. They have had too much to drink. Or they are angry or emotionally upset. They are distracted or exhausted by their multi-tasking, busy lives. Or their driving skills are questionable due to age or poor eyesight or other factors. In a society where nearly all trips must be made by motor vehicle, this problem is large and unavoidable.

It is incumbent on us, therefore, to design our streets and communities to be more compact and slower in speed. Otherwise, dangerous streets and unacceptably high numbers road crashes will always be a part of our lives.

 

 

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