Slow Down: Saturday Sermon

No, this isn’t about ‘lifestyle’ choices, it’s about driving. Some of these themes might be familiar to regular readers:

It happens every day. An innocent person is crossing the street at a corner when suddenly, a car comes barrelling towards her and kills her in an instant. The driver wasn’t drunk or even texting, so we treat these scenarios as “accidents.” We shake our heads and say, “There was no way to prevent this tragedy.”

Well I call bullshit.

Indeed. Let’s continue:

The best way to make our cities and towns safer is to get cars driving slower. I have no problem with people driving 70 mph on the highway–that’s a system intended to move vehicles quickly from one point to another, and pedestrians and bikes are not present in that system. What I do have a problem with is cars driving 40 mph through a neighborhood where children are playing, people are biking home from work or walking to the store. Although we’d be safest without them at all, cars can coexist with bike and pedestrians in an urban environment. But only if the cars are slowed considerably…

I completely accept that some people need cars to get to work, or to visit relatives, or for any number of reasons. But what I don’t accept is that thousands of pedestrian deaths every year are simply unavoidable “accidents.” We can change the way our streets are designed, the way drivers act, and the amount of driving that occurs.That change (and even sacrifice, if you want to call it that) must come on the car side of the equation, and here’s why: Suppose I am walking up the block toward the grocery store (a regular activity for me), when suddenly, for whatever reason, I run into another pedestrian. What happens? Maybe we bruise our elbows, maybe one of us even falls over, but chances are, I simply apologize for running into her, and we get up and continue on our respective ways.

Contrast this scenario with one where I was driving a car to the grocery store. If I “accidently” run into a pedestrian with my car, I will probably break some of his ribs, perhaps leave him with brain damage, and, in all likelihood, kill him. My driving has altered someone else’s life (and my own) forever. It is because I was traveling in a car that my carelessness has resulted in a death. A person alone doesn’t have enough weight or force or speed to do that.

It doesn’t help that we don’t use disguise agency when describing pedestrian killings:

Further exacerbating this problem is the fact that reports on these collisions consistently place blame on the pedestrian while creating distance for the driver. For instance, here is a classic example of a first line in an article about a pedestrian death, just a couple days ago, on the same street where those two children and the woman were injured in Massachussetts (obviously a very dangerously designed road): “A 60-year-old West Springfield woman died after she was struck by a pickup truck as she tried to run across State Street.”

What’s wrong with this line? 1) Vehicles don’t kill people of their own accord, they are driven by human beings. 2) Nothing is written about the actions of the driver, only the woman who “tried to run” across the street. A less biased sentence would read: “A 60-year-old West Springfield woman was killed by the driver of a pickup truck as she crossed State Street.”

The theme of structural solutions–we are not going to make a New Urban Driver–also is good:

So what’s the solution to these deadly “accidents” that plague big cities, small towns and suburbs alike? We will not find the answer in an education campaign aimed at reminding people not to text and drive, nor will we achieve long-term success by simply lowering the speed limit. No, the way we get safer streets is by designing them better. We need to stop building four-lane roads that look like highways through people’s neighborhoods. We need cities with narrower streets, and cars and bikes parked on both sides because what happens when the street is narrow? Drivers are forced to slow down. They become more attuned to their surroundings and anticipate a car suddenly pulling out of a parking spot or a kid walking across the street.


I don’t want to turn your exurb into downtown Manhattan. But in urban areas, we need policies and regulations that don’t harm the ability of cities to cater to their life’s blood: people walking around.

Now, if only the D.C. Department of Transportation would get this…

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3 Responses to Slow Down: Saturday Sermon

  1. Joe Shelby says:

    There is one thing that also needs to be done, one that relieves a key contribution to the factor of speeding: stoplight synchronization.

    One of the biggest hassles I have when I am forced off of a highway (due to an accident) and onto the side roads is that I get stopped. by. every. stoplight. in. a. row. Even 6-lane roads with few stoplights (Fairfax County Parkway will do this.

    The reason is because they are all solely sensor based. They stop one direction when nobody is there and open up the cross traffic. The result is that cars held back by one light can’t get to the next one before it empties out, thus it changes, stopping them. Enough of these and it starts feeling like a slap in the face every. single. stop. If I could hold 30mph through them without stopping, I’d get to where I want to go in 6 minutes. By first being stopped for a minute at a time, and then having to accelerate from 0 every time, that same route takes 12 minutes of my life away.

    There are one solution: time the lights so driving a straight route can clear them, as is done on U.S. 1 and Washington Blvd through Old Town Alexandria.

    Failure to do so will only encourage the alternate solution: cars will jump the light and gun it as fast as they can to avoid being stopped by the next one. The lack of traffic flow consideration in the light system has itself helped to create the culture of gotta speed to get anywhere. Yes, many speed because they are speeders. But many others are conditioned to speed because the alternative, to them, has been worse. From experience.

    • Joe Shelby says:

      sigh, i hate that i can’t edit after posting. got interrupted by my 4 year old and didn’t go back to reread it.

    • dr2chase says:

      What speed should they be synchronized at? If you want to minimize pedestrians deaths, slower is better, certainly 20mph or lower. But that’s a little high for bicycles; you wouldn’t want more than 15. And if you are aiming for pedestrian safety, you would prefer to move people out of cars and into bicycles, because their mass is so much lower and thus equal-speed crashes involve much less transfer of energy and momentum to the pedestrian.

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