The exceptionally American problem of rising traffic fatalities
About a thousand people gathered on the National Mall on a bright Saturday morning before Thanksgiving to do what has become an American tradition: mourn a traffic fatality. With the Capitol in the background and the tune of an ice cream truck circling nearby, the crowd had gathered to commemorate Sarah Debbink Langenkamp, who was cycling home from her sons’ elementary school when she was crushed by a semi-truck .
Ms. Langenkamp was improbably the third State Department field service officer to die while walking or bicycling in the Washington area this year. She was killed in August in suburban Bethesda, Maryland. Another died in July while cycling in Foggy Bottom. The third, a retired Foreign Service official working on a contract basis, walked near the agency’s headquarters in August. That’s more Foreign Service officers killed by vehicles at home than have died abroad this year, noted Dan Langenkamp, Ms. Langenkamp’s husband and himself a Foreign Service officer.
“It enrages me as a US diplomat,” he said at the rally in her honor, “to be a person who goes around the world bragging about our record and trying to get people to think the way we do.” – knowing that we are such losers on this subject.”
This assessment has increasingly proved to be true. The US has moved away from other similarly developed countries in the last decade, where the number of road deaths has decreased. This American exception became even clearer during the pandemic. In 2020, when car traffic fell sharply around the world, road fatalities also largely fell. But in the US, the opposite happened. travel denied, and the number of deaths continued to rise. Preliminary federal data suggests so Traffic fatalities increased again in 2021.
Safety advocates and government officials complain that America often tolerates so many deaths as the unavoidable costs of mass mobility. But from time to time, the illogicality of this toll becomes clearer: Americans are dying in increasing numbers even as they drive less. They are dying in increasing numbers even as roads around the world are becoming safer. American foreign service officials leave war zones only to die on the streets surrounding the nation’s capital.
In 2021, almost 43,000 people died on American roads, according to government estimates. And the recent spike in deaths has been particularly pronounced among those the government classifies as most at risk – cyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians.
Much of the known explanation for America’s road safety lies in a transportation system designed primarily to move cars quickly, not to keep people safe.
“Motor vehicles come first, highways come first, and everything else is an afterthought,” said Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.
That culture is burned into the state’s transportation departments, which have their roots in the freeway-building era (and through which most of the federal transportation money flows). And it’s particularly evident in Sun Belt metros like Tampa and Orlando, which have boomed after the widespread adoption of the car—the streets there are part of it the most dangerous in the country for cyclists and pedestrians.
However, the fatality trends over the past 25 years cannot simply be explained by America’s history of freeway development or dependence on automobiles. In the 1990s, road deaths per capita in industrialized countries were significantly higher than today. And they were higher in South Korea, New Zealand and Belgium than in the US. Then a revolution in car safety brought more seatbelts, standard airbags and safer car frames, said Yonah Freemark, a researcher at the Urban Institute.
As a result, deaths in the US and internationally fell. But as cars became safer for the people in them, the US didn’t make strides like other countries in prioritizing people’s safety Outside She.
“Other countries in the 2000s began to take pedestrian and cyclist injuries seriously — and began to make it a priority in both vehicle design and road design — in a way that has never been done in the United States.” said Mr Freemark.
Other developed countries lowered speed limits and built more protected bike lanes. They moved faster in making standard in-vehicle technology like automatic braking systems that detect pedestrians, and bonnets that are less lethal to them. They designed roundabouts that reduce danger at intersections where fatalities are disproportionately high.
In the US, on the other hand, vehicles have increased over the past two decades significantly larger and thus more deadly to the people they met. Many states limit local governments’ ability to set lower speed limits. The federal five-star safety rating that consumers can look for today when buying a car does not take into account what this car could do to pedestrians.
These diverging histories mean that while the US and France had similar death rates per capita in the 1990s, Americans are now three times as likely to die in a traffic accident, according to Mr. Freemark’s research.
Over that time, more and more people have been getting around on motorcycles and bicycles in the U.S. Bike-share schemes, which are common across the country, and new modes of transportation such as electric bikes and scooters have followed, necessitating the need to adapt roads — and ways and manner of users of all kinds – increased share them – for a world not only dominated by cars.
Bicycle advocates said they expected there would be greater safety as more people cycled and riders got used to sharing the road, reducing the number of deaths. Instead, the opposite happened.
The pandemic has similarly skewed expectations. As countries instituted lockdowns and social distancing rules, roads around the world emptied. Polly Trottenberg, then New York City’s traffic commissioner, recalled a notable lull early in the pandemic when the city had zero pedestrian deaths. She knew it couldn’t last.
“I hate to say it, but I had this fear that things would backfire in a bad way,” said Ms. Trottenberg, now assistant secretary of the US Department of Transportation.
On empty pandemic streets, it was easy to see what kind of transportation infrastructure the US had built: wide streets, even in downtown areas, that seemed to encourage acceleration. By the end of 2020, the number of fatalities on these New York roads had increased since before the pandemic.
“We have a system that allows for this incredible abuse when the conditions are right,” Mr. Freemark said.
And those were the conditions during the pandemic. There were hardly any traffic jams that held back reckless drivers. Many cities also curtailed enforcement, closing DMV offices and offering grace periods to drivers who had unpaid tickets, expired driver’s licenses and out-of-state license plates.
The pandemic has made it clearer how much American infrastructure contributes to dangerous conditions, in ways that cannot easily be explained by other factors.
“We’re not the only country with alcohol,” said Beth Osborne, director of advocacy Transportation for America. “We’re not the only country with smartphones and distractions. We were not the only country affected by the global pandemic.”
Rather, she said, other countries have developed transportation systems where human emotion and error are less likely to result in deadly outcomes on roads.
What the US can do to change that is obvious, proponents say: like fitting trucks with side skid plates to prevent people from being pulled underneath, or narrowing roads shared by cars with bikes with them drivers believe they should slow down.
“We know the problem, we know the solution,” said Caron Whitaker, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists. “We just don’t have the political will to do it.”
The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last year is taking modest steps to change that. There is more federal money for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. And states must now analyze fatalities and serious injuries among “vulnerable road users” — people outside of cars — to identify the most dangerous traffic corridors and possible ways to fix them.
States where vulnerable road users account for at least 15 percent of road deaths must spend at least 15 percent of their federal safety funds on improvements that prioritize those vulnerable road users. Today, 32 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia face this mandate.
The bigger question is whether Americans are willing to stop being exceptional in the world in this way.
“We need to change the culture that accepts this level of death and injury,” Ms. Trottenberg said. “We are appalled when State Department officials lose their lives abroad. We need to create the same sense of urgency when it comes to traffic fatalities.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/27/upshot/road-deaths-pedestrians-cyclists.html The exceptionally American problem of rising traffic fatalities