U.S. Safety Agencies Commit to Eliminating Traffic Fatalities in Next 30 Years…But How?

By Michael GrossmanNovember 16, 2016Reading Time: 6 minutes

As I recently learned, several regulatory agencies and private safety firms have pledged to try and eliminate traffic fatalities within the next 30 years. The details of the conference and the proposed initiatives haven't been made public yet, but it is likely that they will borrow heavily from similar projects taking place across Europe, particularly one born twenty years ago in Scandinavia.

Vision Zero: The Proto-Plan

Originally conceived as early as 1997, the idea of eliminating traffic deaths originated in Sweden under the project name "Vision Zero." The initiative has spread across Europe under a few names, and depending on the level of commitment in each country has had interesting results. Arguably the most successful countries to apply the system are Sweden (its originator), the Netherlands, and Germany. If the new American commitment to zero-death driving is at all inspired by that of the Europeans, they may want to examine some of these countries' efforts to reduce traffic fatalities:

  • Speed Management, Including Speed Differentials
    Each nation's administration has systematically changed its approach to speed. To differing degrees, all three have lowered speed limits for a clearly defined hierarchy of roads, from local residential streets to freeways and highways.

     

    In addition to defining these speed intervals for different kinds of roads, the governments also account for speed differentials. This term relates to considerations about the kinds of traffic expected in certain areas. For instance, if an area is likely to have a healthy mixture of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists, overall speed limits are lowered to accommodate that distribution. This strategy leans on the principle that collisions between objects of different densities will be less damaging at lower speeds. Physics backs up this assertion, though obviously even a low-speed collision between a car and a pedestrian can be quite damaging.

  • Street Design is Elemental to Safety
    In an effort to prioritize safety, each nation has devoted significant attention to re-designing its street layouts to accommodate different groups. Again, the countries' plans differ in their specifics, but the mission remains the same: reduce and eliminate collisions and injuries.

     

    While I can personally attest that they baffle American drivers, roundabouts are often employed in European cities to reduce vehicle speeds at intersections. Unlike standard cross-street setups through which drivers may recklessly speed while ignoring posted signage, roundabouts more or less require at least some reduction of speed.

    Cities in these countries also invest in greater physical separation between cars and bicycle riders in areas with high traffic volume. This seems wise; cyclists are afforded little to no protection in many major American cities, even in densely-trafficked areas. Care is also taken to physically separate opposing traffic lanes in areas outside cities. These are places where user or vehicle errors often cause a driver to lose control and cross the center line, crashing into oncoming cars or trucks. While a concrete divider can still cause injury if hit, it can also prevent more excessive damages from striking a car coming at your own at high speeds.

  • Engineering is Prioritized Over Education* and Enforcement
    Each country emphasizes street design and policy-related changes, such as managing speed and adding traffic cameras, than in the areas of public awareness and policy enforcement. The onus is placed more squarely on the infrastructure than on those making use of it. While public outreach and enforcement are still important components, they are secondary to designing a system wherein they are less necessary to begin with.

     

    *The term "education" is broadly used as a catch-all for many different things--in the area of traffic safety, its main definitions are indoctrinating newly-minted young drivers to the rules of the road and raising/retaining public awareness of important safety issues while driving.

    At it's root, the conference isn't about transplanting solutions from Europe to the United States wholesale, but our unique culture means that any proposals have to be adapted to the infrastructure and folkways that exist in this country.

    Can We Eradicate Traffic Injuries by 2045(ish)?

    I firmly believe that we can take big strides in the direction of reducing traffic fatalities.

    If driver distraction continues to increase as technology improves--and increasing connectivity with the Internet of Things makes it very likely motorists will only get more preoccupied over time--then there's a few possible paths to deal with it:

    1. Remove the car toys. This mostly rhetorical; no auto manufacturer will strip out all the bells and whistles of its vehicles, even in the name of safety. No matter how carefully they expressed their motivation to the consuming public, their sales would be crippled. Instead, they will somewhat ironically incorporate better and more responsive safety features--which are mostly necessary because new car features will have increased the likelihood of a crash. Furthermore, much of this problem actually comes from smartphones, not the vehicles themselves, so "dumbing down" a car from a proto-starship to a simpler conveyance wouldn't really tackle the issue at its heart.
    2. Disable the cell phones. There's no telling what the next 30 years could bring, right? If road safety really becomes a major priority--to the point where, say, it takes statutory priority over one's right to communicate in a dangerous fashion--it wouldn't be impossible for a car and a phone to communicate in a way that keeps the two from being active at the same time. If your phone is on, it has to be powered down or put on standby before your car will start. That's kind of a science fiction answer to a contemporary problem, but we already have the tech to make it happen; nothing has to hover or speak Klingon to get the job done. It would probably present some legal hurdles with the same political elements that loudly protest the regulation of texting and driving, though. Let's put a pin in it and look at other options.
    3. If enforcement is so difficult, increase education. Less rhetorical than number one, yes, but unlikely to make significantly more impact. If politely suggesting that someone's own life is worth saving doesn't reach them, loudly browbeating them with the same information probably won't significantly increase their receptiveness. Increasing outreach with more websites and posters and injunctions not to do harm might have slim success, but I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who genuinely believes he's as safe a driver when distracted as he is when focused. Be it indifference or genuine technology addiction, the urge just overwhelms good sense.
    4. Like Vision Zero, place more of the burden at the administrative level. Superficially, this seems okay. If a government can't legally stop its citizens from willfully self-destructing (thanks, Constitution), it can try to modify the playing field to remove some risk. Consider child-proofing a house; no amount of careful explanation would keep a curious and energetic toddler from haphazardly running through its rooms, so parents add cabinet locks and outlet covers, and put padding on exposed corners. I credit driving-age citizenry with more sense than excitable neo-humans, sure, but the parallels are pretty clear.
      Maybe a government could shoulder this burden in a world without money, red tape, time constraints, or pre-existing infrastructure that would have to be removed and rebuilt. Unfortunately, all of those hurdles and more mean that administrators can't really take all the responsibility involved in such a project on themselves.

       

    5. Take human fickleness out of the equation. I'd like to believe that "inventive" is a word that our species has collectively earned during the span of its history. From the flint knives and paleolithic Tupperware of our ancient ancestors to the spacefaring rockets and wind turbines of today, humanity has created some ingenious solutions to its problems.
      Automotive safety has been one of those issues for decades, and noble efforts take place every day to invent failure-proof methods of protecting a vehicle's occupants. Given the wide disparity of vehicles and safety features rolling on every road in America, we could posit that the actual unifying element in every automotive crash is that a person was behind the wheel, responsible for the car's propulsion and direction.
      It's exciting to live in a time where automakers are working on removing that x-factor from the equation. Tesla Motors is probably the most prominent example; while their "autopilot" feature may not have received entirely positive press lately, conceptually it may be one of the best gambits toward reducing or eradicating traffic collisions. The rapid introduction of self-driving cars and other advanced technologies may make it possible to achieve the elimination of traffic deaths; the Department of Transportation believes that autonomous vehicles may hold the key to removing human error--a factor in up to 94 percent of crashes.

      Altogether, it's clear people agree that "something" should be done about traffic fatalities. The statistical spike in incidents since last year, and its own jump since the year before, are indicators of a dire trend. I'd imagine that when all is said and done, the effort will need to be multi-pronged and involve aspects from several of the elements I outlined above. No matter what comes of this commitment to end fatalities in the next 30 years, though, it is good to see commitment and focus to an area that so desperately needs attention.

      I'm already picturing some weisenheimer suggesting that we can't really be against traffic fatalities, given the nature of our profession. I'd humbly remind anyone who believes this that we are still human beings, and beyond a small fraction of a fraction of people, nobody is pro-death. Personal injury law exists as a reactive measure for instances when proactive action (such as education or legislation) isn't enough to prevent tragedy. It is a check against the possibility that someone is hurt or killed in a manner which could have been avoided. It is a valuable service, but performing it does not mean that an injury attorney wants bad things to happen. It just means that a need was recognized and filled. Moreover, even if car crashes can be stopped in the next 30 years--and I hope they are!--the world is hazardous, and someone will still need to be there to help injured people make their lives whole again. Vision Zero doesn't cover dangerous prescriptions, recalled foods, or defective electronics, just to name a few areas where injury advocacy is a necessity.