Driving as a risk factor: a new paradigm

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This article was originally published in the Journal Vision Zero Citiesan international road safety journal published by Transportation Alternatives in connection with the annual Vision Zero Cities conference.

Despite numerous road safety programs, motor vehicle crashes continue to impose significant costs in both developed and developing countries. Although traffic accident rates have been declining for most of the 20th century, they have been increasing since 2011 in the United States, indicating that current traffic safety strategies have fulfilled their potential. New strategies are needed to achieve ambitious security goals like Vision Zero. This will require a paradigm shift, a shift in how risks are measured and potential security strategies are assessed. Driving is inherently dangerous, and to reduce total exposure to these hazards, we must reduce driving in the United States.

Road fatality rates have risen steadily since 2011, indicating that new approaches will be needed to achieve ambitious safety goals such as Vision Zero.

The United States has, by far, the highest road fatality rate among peer countries.

The United States has, by far, the highest road fatality rate among peer countries.

The old paradigm assumed that automobile travel was generally safe and crash reduction programs focused on specific risks such as impaired driving and distracted driving. The new paradigm recognizes that all vehicle travel carries risk, so exposure, the total number of people driving, is a risk factor.

As evidence, consider the wide variations in accident rates between US states. Some, like New York, Hawaii and Massachusetts, have fewer than six road deaths per 100,000 people, while others, like Arkansas, Wyoming and Mississippi, have more than three times as many. Why? Their residents travel more miles per year at higher speeds than in states with low accident rates.

Road fatality rates increase with annual vehicle-kilometres traveled per capita.

Road fatality rates increase with annual vehicle-kilometres traveled per capita.

Similar relationships hold at other geographic scales: per capita road fatality rates tend to increase with mileage for otherwise similar neighborhoods, urban regions, and countries. Residents of compact, walkable urban neighborhoods have about one-fifth the road fatality rates as in sprawling, car-dependent areas, and communities that improve pedestrian, cycling, and transit infrastructure and modes of change. speed experience significant reductions in accidents.

This has important implications for transport planning. This suggests that planning decisions that increase the total number of vehicle trips tend to increase the total number of crashes, and that vehicle trip reduction strategies may increase safety in addition to their other benefits.

Old and new road safety paradigms differ in many ways.  The new paradigm considers more solutions.

Old and new road safety paradigms differ in many ways. The new paradigm considers more solutions.

The current planning paradigm is reductionist, which means that individual problems have been assigned to agencies with narrowly defined responsibilities. For example, transportation agencies were tasked with reducing traffic congestion, public health agencies with protecting health and safety, and environmental agencies with reducing pollution. Such planning can cause these agencies to implement solutions to problems within their jurisdiction that exacerbate other problems and tend to overlook policies that provide lesser but diverse benefits. The new paradigm supports a more comprehensive analysis that considers multiple goals to identify win-win solutions, policies, and programs that help achieve multiple goals and work in coordination.

Table 2 applies this concept to road safety. The left column identifies various planning objectives. Policies that promote safer vehicles, roads and driving may reduce crash fatalities, but achieve few other goals and may contradict some of them. For example, larger vehicles equipped with airbags and anti-lock brakes increase occupant safety as well as operating costs, fuel consumption and emissions. Safer roads with grade separations, wider lanes and more open space increase pavement costs and, by inducing more vehicle travel, increase traffic problems. Because they feel safer, wider, straighter roads encourage drivers to take additional risks, such as driving slightly faster or being distracted, a phenomenon called risk compensation. Restrictions on young and senior drivers increase their costs and reduce their mobility options. In contrast, lower traffic speeds, transportation demand management (TDM) programs, and smart growth policies that reduce total vehicle trips and create more compact communities increase safety and help achieve other Community objectives, and can therefore be considered as win-win solutions.

(? = achieves goal. ? = contradicts goal) Safer vehicles, roads, and driving can reduce crashes, but achieve few, and sometimes contradict, other goals.  Transportation demand management (TDM) and smart growth policies increase safety in addition to helping achieve other planning goals, and therefore can be considered win-win solutions.

Safer vehicles, roads and driving can reduce crashes but achieve few and sometimes contradict other goals. Transportation demand management and smart growth policies increase safety in addition to helping achieve other planning goals, and therefore can be considered win-win solutions.

A more comprehensive security analysis tends to support social equity goals. Many conventional safety strategies, such as larger vehicles with better passenger protection and wider roads with fewer intersections, tend to increase walking and cycling risks. In contrast, reduced traffic speeds, TDM, and smart growth tend to improve safety, mobility, and accessibility for people who can’t, shouldn’t, or prefer not to drive.

This does not mean that road safety requires eliminating all driving: some vehicle travel is necessary. However, a lot of driving right now isn’t. Investigations indicate that many people would rather drive less, spend less time and money on driving, and rely more on alternatives, provided they are convenient, comfortable, and affordable. Additionally, many communities have set vehicle trip reduction targets and are implementing multi-modal planning, smart growth policies and TDM programs to achieve various community goals. These strategies can also significantly reduce accidents and save lives. When all factors are taken into account, reducing vehicle trips can be a very cost-effective way to increase safety, and the benefits to road safety can be among the greatest benefits of vehicle trip reduction policies. .

This article summarizes a more comprehensive report, A new paradigm of road safety.

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