Traffic Safety Is Primarily an Engineering Problem

When the D.C. division of the ongoing driver-cyclist culture wars flared up a while ago, I remarked that traffic ‘accidents’* aren’t a cultural problem, but a systemic one:

But this isn’t a ‘cultural’ problem, it’s systemic. If we wait for the New Urban Person to arise, we’ll be waiting for a long time. To make the roads safer for everyone, especially pedestrians, there’s a simple solution, albeit one that isn’t ‘win-win’: you have to make the traffic slower. This means driving will be less convenient, perhaps even unpleasant.

Readers might not believe me, but being a pedestrian in DC is far more dangerous than in Boston. It’s not because Boston drivers are ‘better’ (a ridiculous notion), but because the road grid and transportation network are safer for pedestrians. Consider the Back Bay in Boston. Every intersection has either a stoplight or an all-way stop, with most intersections being mandatory stops. It’s impossible to get up a head of steam on Commonwealth Avenue–when the weather turns nice, one is usually treated to spectacle of some guy in a speedy car racing 75 yards…only slam on the brakes at a red light. The addition of bike lanes on Comm. Ave. has also slowed traffic. The exception to the rule is Beacon Street, where the traffic flows well, and pedestrians get killed*.

Sweden seems to have embraced this philosophy, and, as a result, dramatically lowered the carnage on their roads (boldface mine):

In 1997, Sweden implemented its now-famed “Vision Zero” plan in hopes of eradicating all road deaths and injuries, and it has already cut the deaths by half since 2000. In 2012, just one child under seven years old was killed on a road, compared with 58 in 1970.

…the number of cars on the road and the distance driven have doubled since the 70s, yet just 264 people died in road crashes in Sweden last year, a record low. That represents just three deaths per 100,000 people, and compares to 5.5 in the European Union and 11.4 in the US

Sweden has rebuilt roads to prioritize safety over speed and other considerations. This includes the creation of “2 + 1″ roads, three-lane streets consisting of two lanes in one direction and one lane in the other; the extra lane alternates between directions to allow for passing. That design saved roughly 145 lives during the first 10 years of Vision Zero, according to the Economist.

Sweden has also created 12,600 safer pedestrian crossings with features such as bridges, flashing lights, and speed bumps. That’s estimated to have halved pedestrian deaths over the past five years. The country has lowered speed limits in urban, crowded areas and built barriers to protect bikers from incoming traffic. A crackdown on drunk driving has also helped.

Because this is the question needing an answer:

How many people per year should be maimed, crippled or murdered so people can arrive some place five minutes faster?

Until we answer that, all of the U.S. ‘Vision Zero’ talk is just that–talk.

*An accident is my spilling something on your shirt. Killing or maiming someone with your car should be a crime.

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2 Responses to Traffic Safety Is Primarily an Engineering Problem

  1. mk says:

    Living in the DC area, I’d love to see the model developed in Sweden implemented here. I’ve long desired and advocated for bike lanes, true dedicated bike lanes on all the major (and some minor) thoroughfares. Beach Drive particularly needs this.

    Putting bicyclists on roads like Connecticut ave and 16th Street is just crazy. Share the road? Yeah, sure. Drivers hate the cyclists, cyclists hate drivers, and even the most conscientious occasionally have accidents (BTW, not all collisions with pedestrians or cyclists are crimes). We’ve all had momentary lapses in concentration, while driving, while cycling, even while walking. Self absorbed, stupid people not only drive cars, they walk and ride bikes, too. They bring that same distracted, unsafe mindset where ever they go. Separating them is the only logical solution.

  2. Gingerbaker says:

    Sweden has had very stern drunk driving rules for a very long time, and Swedes respect the concept. That would cut the carnage in half all by itself.

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