Hey, I’m walkin’ here! — Feedback on highway safety

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Twitter, Facebook, and the comment link have brought many responses to my post contesting Tim Bousquet’s claim that contemporary society has simply accepted “high rates of road slaughter… as an unavoidable tragic part of life.” To the annoyance of pedestrian and bicycles buffs, statistics show the opposite is true: concerted efforts to improve highway design, vehicle design, and driver behaviour have yielded sharp reductions in the rate of highway fatalities over the last 30 years.

I also complained that car critics like Bousquet display an urban myopia, since the vast majority of residents in this thinly populated province require a car or ready access to one.

Some readers (including Bousquet) accused me of lacking concern for further improvements in highway safety. That herring is red. Every sensible person wants continued improvement. (Bousquet mostly sidestepped the inconvenient stats, and chose instead to complain about what he claimed were ad hominem attacks by me on him.)

My core objection is to those who depict the problem of highway deaths and injuries as a moral failing uniquely affecting drivers, but from which bicyclists and pedestrians are immune. I suspect inattention, recklessness, and malevolence are evenly distributed among those groups—and largely irrelevant to an effective solution. The problem is mainly one of design and standards. Improvements in collision, injury, and fatality rates are more likely to result from improvements in design and implementation of standards than from public scoldings. More on design in a moment.

A Cape Bretoner sojourning in New Zealand writes:

Here in New Zealand they really cracked down on speeding during the Christmas holidays. With speed cameras, there is no leeway—a $150 fine if you are over 2km hour. And they just put in new blood-alcohol limits—about half what they used to have, so they are now equivalent to Canada. But they think it is primarily speeding—radically reduced fatalities by half.

I don’t want to empower police with a network of cameras that enables them to track ordinary citizens’ vehicles as they go about their business, law abiding or otherwise. The surveillance state doesn’t appeal to me. Neither does the idea of zero-tolerance for speeding (or for anything else, for that matter). At a minimum, if we enable technologies to track people that closely, I hope some of the unreasonably low speed limits will be raised to reasonable levels. Not on 110K limited access highways, but the city thoroughfares that could be 80K, but are set at 50K.

The temporary New Zealander responded:

I agree with you, and it is hotly debated on talk radio in NZ, because slow drivers actually cause reckless driving (rage and passing), and the cameras mean zero tolerance [whereas a] cop could just warn you… I never got a speeding ticket in my life until I came here, and now have gotten three through cameras for only being a few kms over the limit.

Reader Richard Gilbert asks:

While highway deaths have been reduced over the past couple of decades, how much of the result is due to improvements in trauma care in the hospitals? Modern warfare has a lower death rate than earlier wars (see WWI) due to improved transportation of battlefield wounded and more rapid treatment. Instead, there are greater numbers of amputees and disabled returning from the wars. Perhaps the same is true of highway accident victims; there are more survivors. Has anyone made a comparison of the total number of injuries/deaths due to automobiles over the past quarter-century? 

Good question. The same Transport Canada website that provided the fatality stats in my original posts lists stats for non-fatal crashes resulting in injuries. The numbers suggest both factors—safety improvements and better trauma care—were at work. Fatal crashes and crashes with injuries both declined sharply over 20 years, but fatalities declined about one third faster (down 38% vs. down 28%).

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Reader Joe Ward thinks there are more improvements to come, among them, “the sharing economy (Uber/Lyft), improvements in mass transport, and self-driving cars.” Personally, I can’t wait for self-driving cars. I want to curl up in the back seat with a good book on the way home to Kempt Head.

Wayne Fiander thinks the numbers show even greater improvement than I indicated, noting that Nova Scotia vehicle registrations increased about 13 percent, from 533,000 in 1994 to 615,000 in 2013. At the same time, new, safer four-lane highways went into service from Amherst to just outside Antigonish, and along shorter parts of the 101,  103, and 125.

Therefore the roads are not the issue, in my opinion, nor is it the drivers of the vehicles with the accident rates down. What is left is the media sensation on wreckage, injuries to sell newspapers and create controversy for policy makers rather than a road design issue.

This raises a much larger social issue: how the news media’s rising focus on violence, crime, and terrorism has distorted the public’s already distorted perception of risk. Bousquet could usefully give that some thought. On Wayne’s specific point, the best measure of changes in highway safety would probably be collisions and fatalities per 1,000,000 kms driven. I just took the stats most readily at hand, because Bousquet’s contention that society has ignored highway safety is so easy to refute.

Finally, back to the question of design. Bousquet’s followup post on this topic opened with a lurid description of what he claimed was a close brush with death at the hands of a reckless vehicle Friday night as he attempted to navigate a crosswalk at the intersection of Thistle and Victoria in Dartmouth. The problem, he implied, was strictly one of driver carelessness.

Bousquet’s and my mutual friend, accessibility activist Gus Reed, has responded with a detailed letter arguing that intersection design—or more specifically, the lack of intersection design standards in HRM—probably played the biggest role.

Gus begins by pointing out that Thistle and Victoria is where Judy MacIsaac-Davis was hit and killed last May, suggesting the intersection may be inherently dangerous. Noting that sunset occurred about 4:45, he asks, dryly, “Were you wearing your dark, artsy, journalist uniform?”

Bousquet near death

Next, he provides an annotated Google Street View photo of the intersection, together with a list of safety concerns:

  • Why is there even a marked crossing to a place with no sidewalk? Seems kinda crazy.
  • Streetlights well back from the crosswalks.
  • The usual criminally stupid fan-shaped curb cuts so pedestrians can wander off into the middle of the intersection.*
  • A very busy scene – badly located poles and posts masquerading as pedestrians.
  • Hedge.
  • Parking lot behind Bicentennial School exits onto Victoria without signage.
  • No traffic-calming—speed bumps, raised crosswalks—here or anywhere in HRM.
  • Just on the other side of Thistle, where the two cars are facing you, you get an idea of the nearly invisible parallel stripes on a crosswalk. And that from a Google camera 15 feet up.

“All in all,” concludes Gus, “lousy design, no standards, poor execution. Although pedestrians and drivers share some responsibility, they are entitled to well thought-out, modern, and well executed infrastructure.”

Hear, hear.

Now I hasten to add, Bousquet has done considerable service on the issue of crosswalk safety. He has aroused Halifax media and police to the issue, and persuaded me, for one, that it needs more attention. It’s the one area where I can’t show a dramatic improvement in highway safety, mainly because, until recently, statistics from car-pedestrian accidents were not broken out from overall collision stats. But even if they were, it’s possible there has been little or  no improvement.

Like Gus, however, I wish Bousquet would focus more on intersection design and less on emotionally satisfying denunciations of demon motorists.

Finally, faithful reader Cliff White sends this cheering note to both Donham and Bousquet:

As a reader of both Contrarian and the Halifax Examiner it is wonderful to have two reliable journalistic sources in Nova Scotia that actually work to keep each other honest. More please.

Hear, hear to that as well.

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* Gus explained his dislike of fan-shaped curb breaks in a highly detailed 2008 blogpost. Briefly, “Sidewalks now are the principle way of separating cars from pedestrians. The curb is a convenient way of reminding you not to leave your lane. Thinking of the curb as protection, it seems folly to eliminate it where it’s most needed, at corners where pedestrians bunch up and cars change direction. In fact, I will bet you a Toonie or two that at least one car in ten cuts into those fan-shaped monstrosities.  You definitely need the curb at the apex of the curve to safeguard your toes from buses.”