One of the oft-cited complaints about any sort of traffic calming treatment (speed bumps, narrowing streets, etc. etc.) is ‘what about emergency response?’ This has become something of a knee-jerk response, and it’s said with such seeming authority that it seems impolite, at the very least, to question it, even if it means we allow our local streets to become a source of daily unpleasantness and danger to accommodate what are statistically very rare needs (and there has been some good work on so-called “emergency response friendly” traffic calming).
After all, what individual, when questioned, wouldn’t intuitively want to be whisked to the hospital as fast as possible, or have fire crews sent racing to their house with minimal delay? I began thinking differently on this topic after meeting Nadine Levick at a traffic conference last fall. Over lunch, Nadine, a tireless crusader on a subject outside of most people’s purview, noted to me, according to one survey, riding in an ambulance, per mile, was one of the most dangerous things a person can do. And not simply because of, as you might imagine, clueless drivers not noticing an ambulance blazing through an intersection — but often because of unsafe actions by drivers themselves, as well as alarmingly substandard ambulance design (ambulances are not regulated by NHTSA for the crash protection of the occupants in the back; she’s got loads of horrific slides of the “boxes” having flown off the vehicle in a crash, and I’d urge you to otherwise delve into the site). The underlying sense I got from her was that of a sort of macho heroic undertone to emergency response, albeit shot through with the best of intentions, to get to or from the emergency with greatest possible haste — damn the consequences.
In any case, I thought of this again today thanks to an excellent article at Slate, by two medical personnel, that points out something that Levick was getting it: Despite the notion we may have that lives are at stake and a delay of a few minutes will be the crucial difference (isn’t it better for the speeding up to happen at the hospital end, or to work on better preventative and monitoring measures?), it turns out, as the authors note, “not to be backed up by good science’; and, what’s more, as they note, the risks taken in fast transport (to those outside the vehicle as well) may exceed whatever medical benefits are gained.