More on risk compensation


A brief follow up on yesterday’s post about risk compensation….

Building complex streets with the design features of roads – one version of what we call a stroad – is generally done by the engineer for safety reasons. Pedestrian and cycling advocates know that this is a narrow vision of safety.

What the engineer is doing is actually transferring risk from the automobile driver to the pedestrian/cyclist. The resulting environment is safer for drivers that make mistakes but far more dangerous for pedestrians/cyclists that make mistakes.

I focus on mistakes because it reveals the paradox of the engineer’s thinking. The standard stroad design assumes that pedestrians and cyclists will not make mistakes, that they will never run out into traffic after a dog or a ball, never cross the street except in the designated areas at the designated times and always stick to their designated zones. We make no compensation in our design for the fact that they occasionally do not do as we plan for them.

For drivers of automobiles, we assume the opposite. We assume they will make all kinds of mistakes. We design for them to leave their lane, go off the road and crash into things. This is why we require clear zones, widen our shoulders and spend so much on breakaway poles.

If we are truly worried about safety, why would we design environments that compensate for the mistakes of the well protected – the only ones capable of inflicting any real damage – and we provide no compensation for the mistakes of the defenseless?

The reality is, we are not truly worried about safety. We are obsessed about other things (following the standard, getting funding, etc…) We have transferred the risk associated with transportation to that segment of society least capable of doing anything about it. Another quote from the book Risk by John Adams.

Do children now spend less time on the street because they spend more time watching television, or do they spend more time watching television because they are not allowed to play in the streets?

As I said yesterday, I am advocating for changes in our design approach, but if we were going to make our streets safe without those changes, we would need every automobile to have a risk compensation device that activated when they entered an urban area. The device would point a gun at the driver’s chest. If the driver had an impact of any type while the automobile was traveling over 20 mph, the gun would automatically fire. This would transfer some of that risk of collision back to the driver of the automobile and even out the cost of a collision between pedestrian and driver (where 85% are fatal to the pedestrian when the car is traveling over 20 mph).

Sound barbaric? So is an environment that results in the death of thousands of pedestrians and bikers each year.