Traffic deaths and tolerance. How do these words even belong in the same sentence together? Yet, that is what we seem to do: we tolerate traffic deaths, accepting them as an everyday occurrence in society.
Ever notice that our media does not report every traffic death? If they did, media would be flooded with disastrous stories akin to multiple jet planes crashing every single day of the year as “over 3 400 people die on the world’s roads every day“.
Death by road traffic injury (from an automobile) is one of the Top 10 Killers around the world. “…[T]ens of millions of people are injured or disabled every year. Children, pedestrians, cyclists and older people are among the most vulnerable of road users.” (WHO, Road Traffic Injuries)
Traffic-related fatalities per 100 000
Here is a packed bubble chart with a circle for each member country of the Organization for Economic Development (OECD). The size of the circle represents the number of traffic-related fatalities per 100 000 population per year and the colour takes advantage of traffic light colours, with rich green representing the ultimate goal of zero, i.e. “Vision Zero“. [See “Notes re: Data” at the end.]
In Canada (2015), 161 902 people were injured in collisions, with 1 858 fatalities. In Alberta, around 300 people die on roads per year, which is more than the tally of firearm-related deaths for the entire country (223 deaths in 2016). Speaking of which, to highlight just how violent the car is in most OECD countries (above chart), here is another packed bubble chart, using the same countries, rate, and colour scale, with the size of the circle representing the number of firearm-related fatalities per 100 000 population per year:
Yet, most members of the OECD arguably have a huge moral intolerance for gun violence. Why gun violence but not death by automobile? In my books, both are horrific but I feel more removed from one than the other, so in my privileged reality, cars scare me more. The stats for my country back up my sentiment.
Pedestrians are not safe
In Calgary, where I live, about one pedestrian gets hit by a car for every day of the year (and the person walking is often in the right), including a death this past month of an elderly man simply trying to cross the street at a signed crosswalk. An innocent act, one we should be able to do without fear of death. (Follow this Twitter bot account if you really want to cringe and/or help raise awareness of this grave issue.)
In Toronto, pedestrian deaths for 2018 are adding up quickly with the city being on track for 66 pedestrian fatalities this year alone, at the current rate. All because of cars and the persistence of policy makers not implementing known best practice in a timely fashion. Instead, the focus is on behaviour.
Infrastructure (not behaviour)
We are at the point where cars are safer than ever (eg. airbags, car seats, etc.), emergency response times in developed nations are faster than ever, western medicine is more miraculous than ever, and yet we continue to hit our head against the wall trying to change behaviour, like putting up cute signs telling people to “slow down, children at play”. Changing behaviour is no longer the answer: we absolutely need to change infrastructure, and fast. Cute signs ain’t cutting it. We need effective road design, like, yesterday.
I accept that we can likely never fully eliminate human error, but for decades we have been building our cities emphasizing the ease of use for people who choose to drive. For example, drinking and driving is an intolerable act nowadays, yet cities force drinking establishments to provide a certain amount of parking as per their capacity. Incongruent? Yes, this policy supports drinking and driving, not alternate forms of transportation.
We have a problem with cars. We are so immune to the risks this omnipresent tool presents on a daily basis that many people who contribute to this problem sound as fanatical as loopy anti-gun control Americans about their rights.
Their right to parking. Not the right to safely bike down the street with separated infrastructure. Not narrow streets so that speeds are reduced and children have better visibility lines for crossing.
Their right to get somewhere fast. Not to reduce speeds to a safer limit, like 40 km/h. Heck, our own province won’t even “let” us do this, yet.
Traffic is “bad” we want “moooooooooaaaaarrrr roads”; “your little cycle track is going to break the bank” but “my interchange is a necessity and the city’s economy will die if it’s not built”. No, actually, but more people will die if we don’t start asking how can we change the design to prevent further incidents, spending our money on retrofitting what we already have to be bring us into the 21st century. And, cycle tracks and walkable environments bring business: #ibikeibuy; #iwalkibuy.
Local politicians are at fault, too, as there is a growing movement to enact change at a policy level in cities but to seemingly never fund — let alone implement — it or only do so at a token level. This lip service is maddening. Infuriating. Poor road design and lack of (distracted driving) enforcement injure and take lives far too often.
Sweden developed and implemented its Vision Zero policies with parliament adopting the concept in 1997. Vision Zero is not complicated: It “…is the Swedish approach to road safety thinking. It can be summarized in one sentence: No loss of life is acceptable. The Vision Zero approach has proven highly successful. It is based on the simple fact that we are human and make mistakes. The road system needs to keep us moving. But it must also be designed to protect us at every turn.” It is not anti-car, it simply assumes to err is human and how can we, as professionals, make every situation as safe as possible for all road users, for all people.
Sweden is 20 years ahead of us. We need to catch up, at least they know what has been working which should help us immensely as we don’t need to waste time and money creating our own solutions. They’re even a snowy winter country, so we can’t make excuses about needing “made in Canada solutions”, as is often the excuse with regards to Netherlands-style road design.
What you can do
Demand that professionals ask what they could have done, design-wise, to prevent a traffic-related injury or death. This is the essence of professional accountability and we need to hold engineers to this.
Be a squeaky wheel: use your city’s 311 or “see-click-fix” program to report issues. File a police report if you are involved in an incident even if it is injury free; this helps to build statistics that can be used to effect change.
Get involved with a local advocacy group, if you can. Raise awareness through word-of-mouth or by writing to your local councillor. Ask questions at election time. Be critical of mayors who say that change needs to happen until it actually happens: hold the mayor (and your councillor) accountable.
Be part of the change. This must happen, we need to change otherwise every death is senseless and that is morally unacceptable. Hopefully we do not need large scale litigation against cities and engineers à la Big Tobacco in order to effect change.
If we truly design our cities asking the question, ‘What can I do to prevent someone from getting hurt in the case of human error?” then we may just create a space where people of all ages and who chose any mode (including driving), can get around without incident. Yes, we may still have accidents — they are an unpreventable reality of life — but we can negate incidents through effective design. This is the thought process that goes behind any plane crash or work place disaster, but this professional accountability seems to have been lost on the whole when it comes to road design.
86.4% of all traffic collisions in Alberta (2015) were due to driver error. This means there is a lot of room for improvement to move from incident to a true accident.
There is change on the horizon. We have change on paper, at least, and in snippets in reality in Calgary, for example, but there needs to be so much more, yesterday.
A note re: data
I decided to limit representation in the graphs to OECD countries for two reasons: I needed a cut-off and it made sense that I hold these particular countries up to the highest measures as they strive for peak economic achievement and wealth, much like they are used in health geography as reference points for end goals. My logic being that if they can afford to win at economics, they can afford to invest in infrastructure that is already demonstrated to promote a true “Vision Zero”.
The Road Traffic Deaths Data is directly from the World Health Organization (WHO), downloaded as a .csv, accessed 3 March 2018.
The Firearm-Related Deaths Data is from a Wikipedia article on this subject matter, all data appears to be sourced from University of Sydney School of Public Health documents published 2013 (accessed 3 March 2018). The numbers used are total deaths related to firearms (i.e. homocide, suicide, unintentional, and undetermined). While it may seem insensitive to use firearms as a comparative (especially at this time considering the recent mass school shooting that occurred 14 February 2018 in Florida, USA), it is a topic that many feel strongly about and consider very violent. So, I believe that it is an effective tool to use to demonstrate that traffic or car-related violence is equally appalling and that we should not accept it, much like we do not accept gun violence in most parts of the developed world and we have moral standards and laws in place to protect the common good.
Lastly, please pardon the decimal places in the traffic-related deaths chart, they are not statistically significant; I could not for the life of me figure out how to get the decimal places to end in the tens, like the data I use does. It magically worked for the firearms-related deaths chart, though. This was my first time using Tableau. And, in hindsight, I should have made the scale for both charts exactly the same; they happen to be extremely close because the upper data points form the end of the scale (12.4 and 11.23), which does not affect the colour gradient noticeably in this case, especially since there are really only two red extremes in the firearms chart and the rest are relatively close to zero (greenest of greens).