While gun violence is a hot topic right now, vehicles kill more people aged 5 to 34 than guns. As is the case with guns, we fail to realize that these are largely structural problems that require structural solutions–expecting people to behave better won’t work. Unfortunately, road engineers are part of the problem, not the solution (boldface mine):
The nation is on track for 35,000 deaths this year, in addition to about 2.3 million injuries, about a half million of which are serious. Nothing cuts down people in their prime like motor vehicle crashes—the leading cause of death between ages 5 and 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The problem is rampant in states like Florida, which ranks first in the dubious category of pedestrian fatalities. Florida has more than twice the traffic deaths (2,443 versus 1,200) and nearly equal population to New York State.
What’s the difference? Florida is 91 percent urban, which should make it safer—rural areas where people drive long distances at high speeds are particularly hazardous. But New York has old cities that were originally built without the “safety” benefits of modern traffic engineering. Florida is built around the automobile, and is especially endowed with wide travel lanes—which are favored by engineers…
Researchers Garrick and Marshall conducted the definitive study of how that strategy worked on 24 California cities. Half of the cities have smaller blocks and were laid out mostly before 1950. The other half were modern suburbs blessed with wide roads and large blocks and more than three times the traffic fatalities per capita of the older cities. The older cities display triple the walking, four times the transit use, six times the bicycling, and immeasurably more charm.
You’ve heard of Florida Man? Well, meet Florida Traffic Engineer (boldface mine):
When a few noncomformist engineers in Florida promoted new standards based on places that are safer and offer transportation choice, the state Department of Transportation (FDOT) responded with a study on “The Influence of Lane Width on Bus Safety.” Not people safety.
Buses are only 8.5 feet across. But they have mirrors on either side that make for a 10.5-foot wingspan. Florida’s streets are wide—most bus routes have 12-foot lanes, the same as Interstates. But a few streets were built prior to the influence of traffic engineers, and they have 9- and 10-foot lanes. “The results suggest that the narrower the lane width, the higher the likelihood of having bus sideswipe and mirror crashes,” says the report.
The study tracked these minor accidents over a five-year period statewide. Not a single human injury is reported—let alone death. But mirrors do have to be replaced. Miami-Dade Transit, with a budget of more than a half billion dollars, reported a whopping $35,000 a year in mirror replacement.
Because of that threat to mirrors, the authors recommend 12-foot lanes on any roads with buses, which is virtually all major roads. The study fails to suggest a possible redesign of mirrors that could collapse and withstand clipping—instead it recommends that all roads in the state conform to a standard that contributes daily to tragedy.
To be fair, FDOT is reforming. The department did not accept the recommendations of this 2010 study and is now moving forward with a Complete Streets Implementation Plan. Not much has changed on the ground yet.
As we’ve discussed before, this is a structural problem–if you slow traffic down, fewer people die. There is a behavioral/cultural aspect to this, but it’s not the culture of the drivers but of the policy makers–who need to adjust their values and priorities towards people, not fucking bus mirrors.