Roads That Kill, Drivers Who Kill

A few kind readers have sent along an op-ed in the Boston Globe, which the website sums up thusly:

“Traffic injuries kill more than a million people a year worldwide, including 40,000 a year in the United States. Yet when a fatality occurs few people blame the roadway for the death.”

The piece makes some good, worthy points (and it’s important to remember that the concept of safer road design can also entail — gasp — forcing drivers to slow). It’s a bit like the concept of “fire-safe cigarettes.” We can try to educate people not to smoke in bed, we can fine them if they do; or we can build a device that extinguishes itself, lowering the potential for a human mistake.

But it also reminded me of a story in today’s New York Times about the deadly crash on the Taconic Parkway (in which the driver was subsequently reported to have a BAC twice the legal limit; before this, there was a grasping search to blame improper road design or poor signage). The story tries to insinuate that the parkway, designed in the 1920s, is no longer safe — the reason, of course, having less to do with the road itself than that drivers no longer feel compelled to drive the 55 mph speed limit (partially because it became a conduit for a sprawl-based commuter-shed). Curiously, though, the piece notes that the Taconic turns out to be safer than comparison roads, thereby somewhat deflating the sense of urgency that this is a road in need of serious examination.

And yet, after the crash, officials put up additional “wrong way” signs at the particular intersection where the driver joined the highway. A natural response, perhaps, but one done more out of reflex (the “accident black spot” approach) than thought: What about all the other entrances? Given that the driver drove for several minutes, clearly against the flow of traffic, what would another ‘wrong way’ sign have done? The point here is that road engineering can only get us so far in reducing deaths; driver behavior matters.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 18th, 2009 at 2:05 pm and is filed under Risk, Roads, Traffic Engineering, Traffic safety. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 Responses to “Roads That Kill, Drivers Who Kill”

  1. karen Says:

    A complaint that I have heard among urban planners is that traffic engineers want to move cars quickly. Pressure from above is what I would guess about that. The voter demands speed and efficiency, except of course when the speeding is happening a few feet from where their children are playing. In a former job I actually had two citizens in one week call the Council office to complain about being ticketed for speeding and running a stop sign. Neither denied the charge but each felt entitled to break the law in their own neighborhood. I believe change requires change in attitude on the part of the individual driver but also the community, which needs to insist on infrastructure that makes speeding and reckless driving more difficult. Narrow the road and street entries, avoid one-way streets that will be used as dragways, and enforce violations with bone crushing fines.

  2. John Says:

    Absolutely right– the driver’s freedom to control the car, and subsequent behavior, will always matter most.

  3. Charlie Parker Says:

    One way tire spikes (think rental car pick up) at that exit? You know some politician is going to call for them.

  4. James Says:

    I drive the Taconic (and the southern stretch of the parkway, the Sprain Brook) all the time. The onramps and offramps are the hairiest aspect of using the parkway; they are not well marked at all, with tiny signs that read “TSP – North” or “TSP-South” rather than signage built to interstate standards. Once you are on the Taconic, there are large sections of the parkway that do not have a breakdown lane, and if you have to make an emergency stop, you are in quite a bit of danger as the winding, hilly terrain could easily obscure the presence of a stopped car until it is too late to stop.

    As is the case with the other parkways in the metro area, they are roads designed for a Sunday stroll that have become de facto autobahns – if you are not moving at 70-75+ you will not be able to keep up with traffic on the Taconic, and it’s a rare day when a car or motorcycle does not blow by me doing 100+ at least once on this road, since enforcement is low to nonexistent.

  5. Tony Toews Says:

    In the past 30 years I’ve twice gone the wrong way on a four lane divided highway. Both times I was entering via gravel roads and at night. In one case the median was about 100 feed wide so I never saw the other lane. Fortunately traffic was light in both cases. As these were both in farming country with mile roads I saw my mistake when I approached the next intersection and saw the big red wrong way signs on both sides of the highway.

    However I did *not* see those signs when I was entering the highway. In my opinion they are too close to the side road to be noticed at night time. At night I’m busy making my turn, locating the paint marks on the asphalt and ensuring I’m in the painted lines. Then I notice the signs if any. By that time I’m past the red wrong way signs. Also when you are making the turn the signs don’t light up all that well as you are at quite an angle to them.

    Thus in my opinion there should be another red wrong way sign several hundred yards down the highway but only on the fast lane side. This would allow me to notice this sign and do a very hasty U turn.

    That said if I was drunk I’dve probably never even noticed the red wrong way signs.

  6. Jack Says:

    Ultimately drivers must be held accountable so what are we to make of one of the strongest trends in our society? Cell phone use is growing so fast that according to an article in NYTimes, about half of American children 12 years and older have cellphones. Elementary-middle school children when I meet my sons after school get on their phone when jumping into their parent’s car. Thus “Car = Cell phone use”- – have we passed the point of no return?

    When riding with a friend’s daughter, the cell phone was juggled with a GPS device and a car radio while cruising down a highway at over 90 mph. I felt like I had to watch closely as she tickled the turbo feature on the Porsche. And of course our neighborhood streets have become more like Forgiving Highways.

  7. Dave Says:

    We need to separate motor vehicle operation from the protections of the US Constitution within our legal system. When we drive, we should feel watched, and we should feel a significant fear of law enforcement.
    Our cops are candyasses when it comes to controlling the behavior of drivers–Rodney King’s experience should become a model for a routine DUI or speeding stop. My forty years of cycling have taught me that there’s a difference between a human being and a motorist. It’s time the legal system reflected that.

  8. George Says:

    “if you are not moving at 70-75+ you will not be able to keep up with traffic on the [name your highway/street],”

    I hear this excuse all the time. I have been driving at or below the speed limit for 42 years and have not been hit from behind.
    If you believe that speed kills why try to keep up with those that don’t.

    “Easy Rider” George

  9. fred_dot_u Says:

    George, I hear that all the time too. At or below the speed limit means greater fuel economy in many situations, as well as more relaxed and enjoyable driving, as the obstacles to be avoided are usually traveling away from you!

    I hear that all the time from people who find it difficult to believe that I operate an EV at 35 mph on roads with 50 mph speed limits (four to ten lanes in width!) and also operate a human-powered velomobile at 20 mph on those same roadways.

    It works, pure and simple.

  10. Chris Says:

    Tony offers sage advice about the need for additional signs and so forth at exit ramps (the ones thought to be on ramps). Night time driving offers many challenges that most people do not fully appreciate until it’s too late. No doubt – intoxicated drivers are prime culprit in these situations… but what about the elderly driver whose vision is just degraded through natural aging – seeing less light and less detail? Are these elder drivers criminals in a wrong way driving situation? The question brings the complexity of the event back into focus.

    Many of the roadways we use today were designed without the knowledge we have today and were designed with a different speed in mind, etc. Design must be called into question, not to place blame on transportation authorities… but simply because it provides the context for such events to occur.

    Here is another wrong way event I like your thoughts about…

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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