Fix Road Safety 3: Popular Solutions that Don’t Work
Waiting for self-driving cars is not the answer
This is the third in a series of common sense solutions to improve road safety for all.
This article borrows from ideas in Dark PR by Grant Ennis.
Complexity is a strategy to avoid real action
Complex problems require complex solutions.
If road safety is seen as complex, then we need to consider a diverse menu of possible solutions.
But, we’ve previously discussed that road safety comes down to one word: speed.
If we are willing to prioritize safety over speed, we could make considerable progress quickly in reducing road deaths and injuries.
Most of our cities in Canada, however, create a dependency on cars to get around. So we prioritize speed to maximize traffic flow, and silently accept that the cost will be a certain number of lives lost and lives damaged.
Complexity distracts us from focusing on key actions. We know that safety comes down to engineering – designing roads for slower traffic. Automated enforcement is a second action.
Instead, we tend to focus on distractions. Let’s look at some of those distractions, so that we can recognize them, put them in their place, and refocus on what really matters.
Car crashes are normally called accidents. But there really are no accidents.
No driver, or pedestrian or cyclist, is perfect. We get distracted, our mind wanders, we make poor choices. We’re human.
When “being human” mixes with “cars travelling at high speeds” the results can be catastrophic. But that’s not an accident. That’s poor road design that allows inherently flawed humans (ourselves included!) to operate heavy machines at high speed.
We can design our roads to slow traffic down, particularly when mixing with vulnerable users. We can allow humans to be human, without the risk of death.
Let’s stop talking about accidents. Instead, let’s talk instead about unsafe road design, or about individuals who make reckless and dangerous driving choices.
When vulnerable users are hit by a car, we have been trained to first ask if they were wearing dark clothing, or didn’t have lights, or crossing a road illegally.
As a society, we have adopted an approach of “safety individualism”, that safety is not just a shared concern, but that the onus is on each of us to ensure our own safety.
By blaming victims, we can avoid talking about the systemic changes to road networks that could materially improve traffic safety.
As the safety technology of cars improves, from seat belts to anti-lock brakes to lane-keeping assist, we experience a “silver boomerang” phenomenon. Specifically, as cars become safer to drive, people engage in higher risk activities. For example, with better anti-lock brakes, drivers tend to drive faster and allow less room for stopping. While we are not arguing against greater safety features in cars, it’s important to be aware that these technological developments focus us away from the real solutions required – i.e., a road network that prioritizes safety over traffic flow.
Despite the promises of its boosters, autonomous driving is not a safety solution we can count on. Autonomous cars have been “just around the corner” for decades.
Are we getting closer? Maybe. Will we get to fully autonomous driving anytime soon? Probably not.
But most importantly, we cannot be making decisions today that affect life and death, based upon the promise of a future technology that may never arrive. We need to take the actions today that we know will save lives.
Back to basics
Calling them accidents. Victim blaming. Technology. Autonomous cars. These are not systemic solutions for road safety.
The primary cause of road deaths is speed. If road safety is our objective, the answer is road design that slows down traffic and protects all road users.
The New York Times had a recent article, The Path to Reducing Pedestrian Deaths is Steep but Straight, outlining what needs to be done to make North American streets safer for vulnerable users. Let’s close with their conclusion:
“City planners and traffic engineers would, in short, have to prioritize safety over speed and the efficient movement of vehicles.”
We know what needs to be done. Are we going to do it?
P.S. we are always happy to hear from readers, but will be unable to respond to any messages until mid-December.