Our friends at City Observatory recently shared some devastating statistics about road fatalities this year in the US:
The number of persons fatally injured in traffic crashes in [the United States] in the first half of 2016 grew by 9 percent. That means we’re on track to see more than 38,000 persons die on the road in 2016, an increase of more than 5,000 from levels recorded just two years ago.
It continues to amaze me that we view tens of thousands of deaths every year as merely "the cost of doing business." As Chuck Marohn has pointed out on several occasions before, we're horrified when 100 people die in a plane crash, or when 10 people die in a train crash. We play these stories repeatedly on the news. We talk about them with our friends and share them on social media. We question whether we ought to ride in a plane or a train again. Extensive investigations are done to find out what caused the crash and safety boards create new regulations to try and prevent further crashes.
Yet 38,000 people are dying as a result of car crashes every year; that's more than 100 per day. And we think nothing of it. We just shake our heads and call it "a tragedy," blaming it on drunk driving or texting. We fail to express outrage at regulatory boards or the government agencies using our tax dollars to build these dangerous roads.
In the case of the National Safety Council, they blame the increase in traffic fatalities on... wait for it: economic growth. As City Observatory writes:
We have to disagree with the National Safety Council on one key point: we shouldn’t mindlessly blame the economy for our safety woes. In their press release, they attribute the increase in fatalities to an improving economy, saying: "While many factors likely contributed to the fatality increase, a stronger economy and lower unemployment rates are at the core of the trend."
That’s an unfortunate, and probably incorrect framing, in our view. Chalking the rise in traffic deaths up to an improving economy seems a bit fatalistic: implying that more traffic deaths are a sad but inevitable consequence of economic growth, one which might prompt some people to shrug off the increase in deaths. That would be tragically wrong, because, at least through 2013, the nation experienced a decrease in traffic deaths and an improving economy.
"A sad but inevitable consequence" does indeed sound like our national attitude toward traffic fatalities. Rather than blaming economic growth, City Observatory points to a decrease in gas prices during the last two years, which has induced more driving and perhaps thus more crashes:
A study of gas prices and crash rates found that the relationship was indeed “non-linear”–that small changes in gas prices were associated with disproportionately larger increases in crash rates [...] We ought to be putting in place policies that bring the price of driving closer to the costs that it imposes on society.
I couldn't agree more. Anything we can do to design our roads to more aptly communicate the true cost and danger of driving, we should. As it currently stands, we design roads to allow for the fastest, smoothest ride, roads that tell drivers: "Drive quickly. Rush to your destination. This is basically a super highway and you are invincible." We have built our entire nation around car travel and the consequence in tens of thousands of deaths every year.
In fact, your risk of dying in a car crash is 17 times greater than your risk of dying in a train crash, and 67 times greater than your risk of dying in a bus crash. Would you consider supporting better bike, walk and transit options if you knew those were vastly safer modes of transit than driving? Would you choose to take the bus to work if you knew it might save your life? Would you advocate that public dollars be spent to make streets safer instead of wider and faster? I would.
I don't hate cars and my goal is not a country where everyone bikes or buses everywhere. I just wish we would recognize the danger we put ourselves, our children, our loved ones in every time we get in a car, and I wish we would design our streets to be safer. Getting to your destination 10 seconds faster is not worth the money and it's not worth the loss of life.
(Top photo by Nabeel Syed)