Recently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued its estimate of 2021 U.S. traffic fatalities. A Reuters headline blared, “U.S. traffic fatalities surge 10.5% in 2021 to highest count since 2005,” followed by the lede, “Traffic deaths surged after coronavirus lockdowns ended in 2020 as more drivers engaged in unsafe behavior like speeding and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.”
No empirical data was cited by the writer to support the sweeping contention that irresponsible drivers caused the fatality uptick, but he did acknowledge further into the article that the fatality rate fell slightly in 2021 from the preceding year, from 1.34 traffic deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled to 1.33, as more people took to the roads with COVID-19 restrictions easing.
We have shared discussions from the Member Forum of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) in the past to provide an informative glimpse into the thinking of some of the people responsible for the practical application of safety standards to the roads. Shortly after the NHTSA report was released, a related “U.S. Roadway Fatalities at 16-Year High” thread was started on the ITE Forum. Jay Beeber, NMA Research Fellow and ITE Member, suggested a reality check on the alarmist thread title:
“So the headline on this should be ‘U.S. Roadway Fatalities Down Slightly in 2021.’ With all due respect, the industry standard metric is the fatality “rate,” not the absolute number of fatalities. California has the largest number of roadway fatalities because it’s the state with the largest population and highest vehicle miles traveled. For this reason, you wouldn’t compare the total number of fatalities in California to Rhode Island.
“Apocalyptic headlines don’t serve us well if we want to be taken seriously. Of course, the goal is to continue to reduce the number of fatalities on our nation’s roadways, regardless of whether the fatality rate ticks up or down and, over the long term, we have achieved that. The fatality rate on US roadways has fallen 21% in the last quarter century and is down 76% since the mid-1960s. It’s down 95% since the modern automobile era began a century ago. By any measure, this is a huge accomplishment. Sure, we should take note that there’s more work to do to improve roadway safety, no one is arguing otherwise. But let’s at least keep the discussion reasonable and keep in mind the larger picture. . .”
As you might expect, that triggered a number of responses from the traffic engineering community, including one from a City of Portland, Oregon engineer who pointedly noted that he did not consider Beeber a colleague and somewhat disdainfully implied that a person who supports motorists’ rights is not to be taken seriously about road safety matters.
Jay then added, ”Some approaches to safe systems design aren’t reasonable. In particular, the idea that cars should never go faster than the speed at which a fatal injury might occur if there’s a conflict with a vulnerable road user is mostly nonsensical. That might work in a small city or town center (and the road has to be designed so the speed is self-enforcing) but many are advocating for this to be the norm throughout entire cities. That’s like saying airplanes shouldn’t fly higher than 10 feet off the ground in case they fall from the sky or that ladders shouldn’t be taller than 2 feet lest the user make a mistake and fall off. Some design ideas might create a perfectly safe system, but render the tool essentially nonfunctional.”
But the pièce de resistance in rebutting the all-in safe streets approach was this summation by Jay on the forum:
“I think one of the biggest objections I have to some ideas posted here is the hubris of some that believe they know so much as to be able to control the behavior and lives of large parts of the population – from where and how we live our lives, to what types of homes and communities we are “allowed” to live in, to how and when we travel.
“That’s a bad approach, not only because it’s an overtly authoritarian approach, but it just doesn’t work, and inevitability leads to conflict. Of course, there’s a place for rules of the road, requirements for vehicles like seat belts, airbags, anti-lock brakes and the like (those things likely would have become the norm without government intervention, but it could have taken longer). But the “new paradigm” of controlling everyone’s lives and behavior isn’t new. It’s just the old authoritarianism wrapped up in shiny new slogans. It hasn’t worked in the past, and it won’t work in the future.
“The same is true for things like “speeding” (which I put in quotes since it is ill-defined and highly relative to the conditions). Arbitrarily lowering speed limits and imposing massive enforcement to try to get people to comply has been the approach since automobiles were invented. It doesn’t work, and it never will, but some keep trying to double down in the hope that there will be some magical breakthrough. The only thing that works is changing the nature of the roadway to make it self-enforcing at the desired speed (and then dealing with the true outliers).
“But you can’t do that everywhere as some have advocated – say to make them all 20 mph roads – because people still have to get where they are going in a reasonable amount of time, and the change can cause other unintended consequences. So we have to be judicious about these types of changes and target them to where they will be effective and well-tolerated by road users.
“But I’m more the glass-half-full person. I know things are much better than they were in the past (looking long-term) and believe they will continue to get even better in the future without huge governmental command and control over people’s lives or trying to completely remake society. Individual choices and improvements in technology will further reduce fatalities.
“Here’s another way to look at last year’s fatality statistics: About 43,000 people died in traffic accidents. Each of those 43,000 crash deaths is tragic, but they’re statistically rare. On average, there was only 1.33 for every hundred-million miles of driving. That translates into 2.5-million hours of driving. 2.5-million hours of driving is 285 years of continuous 24 hours a day, seven days a week driving in between fatal crashes. Statistically, any one individual is relatively safe traveling on our roadways. And if we don’t do anything stupid, like driving impaired, or fatigued, or intentionally distracted, or weaving in and out of traffic at excessive speeds, our safety odds go way up.
“I’m not trying to minimize the loss of life that’s been reported, just trying to keep it in perspective.”
We needn’t say more, frankly, because we couldn’t have said it nearly as well.