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Rational Safety or Driver Child-Proofing?

Reader Kent from New Zealand writes in with news of a new safety technology called “Raptor,” meant to sheathe road-side poles.

Many road deaths followed collisions with a tree or pole, James said, and tests had shown that a passenger compartment crush reduced from 500mm, when hitting an unwrapped pole, to 10mm when hitting a pole sheathed with a Raptor.

My first thought is: How soon until advertising is sold on those? Second thought is I have no problem with deploying those on high-speed roads, in which case there probably shouldn’t be poles or trees close to the road in the first place, but putting them up on lower speed roads, apart from being aesthetically unpleasant (I mean, really, do you want your town’s streets looking like the pit entrance at Talladega?), is just further child-proofing that will only encourage more bad behavior from drivers who should know better.

Trees tend to be uniformly defined as a hazard by road engineers, but another way of thinking about them is as a safety device: They protect pedestrians from wayward vehicles, and encourage slower speeds (lower speeds also reduce passenger compartment crush) by drivers. As always in these cases I refer to the work of Eric Dumbaugh:

Eric Dumbaugh, assistant professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at Texas A & M University, made a strong case that traffic engineers sometimes fail to understand the implications of their own accident data.

He presented some forceful statistics showing that while American rates of highway fatalities have fallen significantly over the past 30 years or so, they haven’t fallen as fast as the rates in other advanced countries. “We’ve fallen behind our first-world design peers.”

The problem is that American road builders’ model for a safe road is an Interstate highway – with limited access, wide lanes, and few turning options. The result is that engineers try to turn every road into an Interstate, with serious effects on aesthetics, and on safety too.

Dumbaugh argued that there is another model for a safe road, and that is the local street that is “dangerous by design.” Its hazards – curbside trees, for instance – are obvious. They force drivers to slow down, and that makes for greater safety.

He showed a slide of a stretch of road in Florida he had studied as part of a larger investigation of car crash sites. This particular stretch is lined by trees – the obstacle traffic engineers love to hate – on not just one but both sides. But it was clear from the picture that this is part of a real neighborhood – the kind of area where a driver instinctively slows down.

The road runs through the campus of Stetson University, an area with college students, dorms, and bars. And yet during the five year period his study covered, Dumbaugh said, there was not a single fatal crash there.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 8th, 2010 at 8:29 am and is filed under 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.

6 Responses to “Rational Safety or Driver Child-Proofing?”

  1. Michael Prager Says:

    I agree that these could make some want to drive faster, like you might in an SUV in the snow, but perhaps different styles and colors could be tested to see the affects on drivers behaviors. Test them and see what happens. There could be a few spots where such a thing could help save lives. One question, which would be cheaper, moving the poll or putting on the Raptor?

    I like the description of trees and their effects on driver’s behavior. The problem is that too many streets are not highways or quiet tree lined neighborhood streets and people drive way to fast on them. I not only want traffic calming on residential and commercial streets where there are lots of pedestrians but on our arterials which should be redesigned to slow folks down. I don’t see why any in-town street where there is cross traffic and driveways should allow people to drive more than 30-35 mpg. I live in Madison WI and we have many in-town streets with a 40 speed limit where people sometimes drive 45 or 50 when there is light traffic, an accident waiting to happen.

  2. Brent Says:

    These devices are rather one-sided, aren’t they? They enhance driver safety at the expense of pedestrian safety.

  3. mike chalkley Says:

    Quite right, Brent!

    This is surely an example of the sort of ‘safety device’ that does nothing to increase driver safety in the long term but will increase danger to vulnerable road users by encouraging risk compensation behaviour (as described by Dr Robert Davis in ‘Death on the Streets’).

  4. Nate Larson Says:

    Turning the highway into one big inflatable bouncy-castle isn’t necessarily going to make it safer in the end. I think Dumbaugh’s on to something. As I told my colleagues at a local section meeting of the Institute of Transportation Engineers recently, perhaps we should consider keeping ‘passive safety’ INSIDE the vehicle. Another interesting article on invisible gorillas and the history of passive safety: Malcolm Gladwell in the 6/11/01 New Yorker: “Wrong Turn–How the fight to make America’s highways safer went off course”.

  5. marco rubio Says:

    I agree that these could make some want to drive faster, like you might in an SUV in the snow, but perhaps different styles and colors could be tested to see the affects on drivers behaviors. Test them and see what happens. There could be a few spots where such a thing could help save lives. One question, which would be cheaper, moving the poll or putting on the Raptor?

    I like the description of trees and their effects on driver’s behavior. The problem is that too many streets are not highways or quiet tree lined neighborhood streets and people drive way to fast on them. I not only want traffic calming on residential and commercial streets where there are lots of pedestrians but on our arterials which should be redesigned to slow folks down. I don’t see why any in-town street where there is cross traffic and driveways should allow people to drive more than 30-35 mpg. I live in Madison WI and we have many in-town streets with a 40 speed limit where people sometimes drive 45 or 50 when there is light traffic, an accident waiting to happen.

  6. fred_dot_u Says:

    I’ve seen the re-design of a roadway which involved putting in a median strip where one previously did not exist. The median was planted with trees and the lanes were narrowed quite a bit.

    The speed limit drops from 35 mph approaching (with real speeds of about 40-45 mph) to 25 mph in the narrow section. Real speeds in that section are quite close to the limit and probably would be so without the signs.

    Let’s make the roads safer by reducing the crash severity by putting airbags on trees and poles. Yeah, right.

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