Why Tolerate 42,000 Traffic Deaths A Year?

Here is an interesting article that articulates many of the ideas on street design and safety that we frequently talk about at the Bike Pittsburgh office. We’d like to add that another name for an ethical approach to road traffic is the idea of complete streets, a movement that has gained traction in other cities and states, such as Seattle and Illinois, and is only beginning to be included in the local zeitgeist.


April 30, 2008

Originally published in the Hartford Courant

The tragic death April 20 of Mila Rainof, a Yale medical student, who was struck while crossing an intersection at South Frontage Road and York Street in New Haven and later died from her injuries, brings home the great danger inherent in our transportation system and the need to set higher safety standards.

Each year, more than 42,000 people die in crashes on America’s roads. That’s some 117 of us every day. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for every age from 2 through 34. In Connecticut, 300 of us are killed a year. Who among us does not have a friend or relative who was seriously injured or killed in a car crash? And yet, while these numbers remain the same year to year, we and our politicians all remain remarkably silent about road safety.

This is because crashes seem to be a force of nature, a fact of life — they happen and we call them accidents. Unlike with a war or a crime, there so often doesn’t seem to be any human agency behind motor vehicle crashes. There is something unsatisfying about blaming a jaywalker or someone traveling a few miles above the limit. Who hasn’t been guilty of a similar offense themselves? We are all fallible, after all.

Yet such thinking evinces a general failure to look at the bigger picture. Blame may be assigned to users or it may not. But a transportation system should be built with the recognition that its users will be fallible and with the premise that mistakes should not be fatal.

In 1997, the Swedish Parliament adopted a plan called Vision Zero. Its goal is to reduce deaths and serious injuries from motor vehicle crashes to zero by 2020. Imagine that: zero!

The plan calls for changing behavior and practices among everyone from drivers and pedestrians to police, traffic engineers and licensing agencies. Along with traditional measures such as getting tough about seat belts and drunken driving, the plan involves replacing traffic lights with traffic circles (you can run a red light but not much can be done about a traffic circle) and installing medians along the main roads. Raised crosswalks are now being constructed in dense, pedestrian areas. Speed limits are being lowered while the driver’s education program is reconsidered.

The Swedes fashion Vision Zero as an “ethical approach to road traffic.” At first this sounds strange — what does traffic have to do with ethics? But our failure to link the two is precisely the problem: Long ago we decided that we would not tolerate industrial accidents or, more recently, deaths in commercial aviation.

We mobilized large campaigns to prevent these and we’ve been fantastically successful. Yet why should we continue to tolerate massive numbers of lives being cut short by our ground transportation system?

In fact, how could we fail to take “an ethical approach” to a system that kills and injures so many?

If Sweden, a country of roughly 9 million, can strive for zero traffic deaths, there is no reason that Connecticut, a state of 3.5 million, cannot as well. Sweden has recently realized that it may take beyond 2020 to achieve zero deaths, but it has not used this as an excuse to stop working relentlessly toward its ultimate goal.

The decision to adopt Vision Zero is first and foremost a political one: We and our representatives need to send a message that the only number of traffic deaths that is ethically acceptable is zero.

Such a message can and will lead to an ever-decreasing number of us being killed in traffic. It would require all agencies in government to look at what they can do to save lives. It may well even force us to re-examine our commitment to the automobile as the mainstay of our transportation network.

It would recognize that while some accidents may always happen, fatal ones need not. It’s time to demand a Vision Zero for Connecticut.

Erica Mintzer, 27 is a student in the Yale School of Medicine class of 2009. Hunter Smith, 25, is in the Yale Law School class of 2010. Thomas Harned, 26, is a transportation planner and a master’s candidate in research, statistics, and measurement at Southern Connecticut State University in the class of 2008.

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