Why America’s Roads Are More Dangerous
U.S. and Wisconsin have seen less decline in traffic fatalities than other countries. Why?
Vox, the much-anticipated Ezra Klein/Matt Yglesias/Melissa Bell reporting venture, launched recently to wide fanfare, and one of the first articles explained that “traffic deaths are way, way down” in the United States.
It was exciting to see Vox show an interest in street safety, but writer Susannah Locke missed the mark with her take on the issue.
Locke called a decades-long reduction in traffic deaths to 33,561 in 2012 “a major public health victory.” This meant that only 11 of every 100,000 Americans were killed in traffic that year, which, she rightly points out, is a dramatic improvement compared to the 1970s, when the fatality rate was 27 per 100,000 people.
But compared to our international peers, the United States is still doing a poor job of reducing traffic deaths. Rather than hailing the decline in traffic fatalities in America, we should be asking why we continue to fall behind other countries when it comes to keeping people safe on our streets.
What’s shocking is not only that those countries have much lower rates of traffic deaths — it’s that they’ve also reduced those rates at a much more effective clip than the United States. The streets of our peer countries are becoming safer, faster.
In Japan, the traffic death rate fell 47 percent between 2000 and 2011. Sweden’s fell 49 percent, Germany’s 46 percent, and the UK’s 49 percent. In the same time frame, the improvement in America was just 30 percent. Only developing countries like Malaysia, South Africa, and Colombia performed worse in the international review.
Locke does acknowledge that “there are still too many people dying” but seizes on the diverging diamond interchange as an example of an exciting innovation that could further improve traffic safety. Designed to reduce conflicts between drivers, the diverging diamond is at best a Band-aid — it makes driving safer but doesn’t address America’s dangerous dependence on cars. Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns has called the diverging diamond an “apostasy when it comes to pedestrians” and “proof the engineering profession is failing us.”
Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute would refer to the diverging diamond as the “old transportation safety paradigm.” Litman points out in a recent piece on Planetizen that even as deaths per mile driven declined in the last 50 years in the U.S., increases in per capita driving eroded much of the safety benefit. In addition, safety fixes aimed at reducing the risks of driving — like airbags — sometimes have the unintended effect of promoting riskier behavior.
“As a result, measured per capita, traffic accidents continue to be a major problem and the U.S. has the highest crash rate among its peers,” Litman writes. “From this perspective, conventional traffic safety programs have failed and new approaches are needed.”
The factors Locke cites to explain America’s declining traffic death rate mostly fall under the rubric of “conventional traffic safety programs” — more seatbelt wearing, better airbags, anti-lock brakes, and less drunk driving. This is where looking abroad really would have helped, because the range of tactics other countries have deployed is much broader.
In the UK, 20 mph zones have been steadily growing since the turn of the century, and automated traffic enforcement is saving lives. The Dutch abandoned a street design philosophy based on “forgiving” errant drivers (which America embraced), shifting to an emphasis on walkable, bikeable streets. Japan has perhaps the world’s best transit networks, making driving less necessary. Germany is a pioneer in traffic-calming street design. Sweden, as the Economist recently reported, cut pedestrian fatalities in half over the last five years with a strategy that included low speed limits in urban areas and building 12,600 safer street crossings.
These solutions are catching on in some U.S. cities. New York is rolling out 20 mph zones in some neighborhoods and has re-engineered wide streets to make biking and walking safer. Chicago and DC have substantial speed camera programs in addition to growing networks of protected bike lanes. What impact are these changes having on traffic fatalities? How many lives could be saved if we scaled up these safety improvements nationwide? What else can we learn from countries that are leading the way in preventing traffic deaths?
Those are Vox stories I’d like to read.
And Here in Wisconsin?
Wisconsin has the most lax drunk driving laws in the country, and doesn’t appear to be moving quickly to stiffen penalties. Bill Lueders reported in January 2013 that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos questioned a new effort to stiffen penalties saying they needed, “to take a closer look at the bill draft and the fiscal estimates to see if spending nearly a half a billion dollars is the best way to prevent people from driving drunk.”
Although the Milwaukee Police Department recognizes that deaths involved with pedestrian automobile collisions are dramatically reduced from 45 percent to 5 percent when the speed of the car is reduced from 30 MPH to 20 MPH, there has been no local effort to reduce speed limits in the city to 20 MPH.
Statewide, we may be moving in the opposite direction. In October 2013, a bill sponsored, by Rep. Paul Tittl, to raise the speed limit on Wisconsin’s freeways to 70 MPH was passed by the Assembly.
And it looks like the diverging diamond is on its way to Wisconsin. In March, Rachelle Baillon, of Fox 6 Now reported that the Wisconsin Department of Transportation is investigating the use of a diverging diamond for the intersection of I-43 and Brown Deer Road.
On the plus side? In 2009 Gov. Jim Doyle signed into law Wisconsin’s complete street legislation. The legislation established rules for where and how bicycle and pedestrian improvements are required to be made during road construction projects. And just recently, Gov. Scott Walker signed into law additional education requirements for drivers students regarding bicycle safety. But Wisconsin and the U.S. have a long way to go before they begin to approach the traffic safety achieved abroad.
Diverging Diamond Visualization
Story by Angie Schmitt with additional contributions from Urban Milwaukee. A version of this story originally ran on Streetsblog. Angie Schmitt is a newspaper reporter-turned planner/advocate who manages the Streetsblog Network from glamorous Cleveland, Ohio. She also writes about urban issues particular to the industrial Midwest at Rustwire.com.