Radio Re-run: Freakonomics on Traffic Safety

KQED Public Radio in San Francisco replayed the May 1, 2014 edition of Freakonomics Radio, titled “The Perfect Crime.”

The show begins with a discussion of homicide by car. You’ve heard or seen this claim before both here and elsewhere: If you want to kill somebody and get away with it, run them over with a car.

Walking in San Francisco

This is a lead in, however, to the issue of pedestrian fatalities both in New York City and nationwide. The show moves the focus to the issues traffic safety experts have beaten the drum on for a few decades. From the transcript of the show:

DUBNER: Okay, so that is a massive improvement, to be sure. How did this happen? How did pedestrian deaths fall so much?

NOLAND: The policy that we followed on trying to save pedestrians is to stick them in cars, so they are no longer pedestrians. And that will reduce your pedestrian fatalities ‘cause you don’t have as many anymore.

DUBNER: Robert Noland is director of the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers. He says that as the automobile rose to exalted status in America, the roads – and the entire landscape really – were built to privilege them, the cars. This is most pronounced in the parts of the country with high pedestrian and bicyclist deaths, like the Southeast.

NOLAND: They focus very much on traffic flow and making the roads wider, straighter, and faster. With the assumption that that’s safer. And what a lot of the guidelines do is they look at freeways, which are very safe, and they’re safe because it’s controlled access. You don’t have any intersections. And they take those sorts of design guidelines and they apply it to a city, to city streets or suburban streets and create these very large arterial roads, which tend to be the most dangerous roads whether for drivers or for pedestrians.

I’ve summarized some highlights of the show below, but the show itself is a good introduction to the traffic safety topics I like to focus on. Invest a half hour listening online, or you can read the transcript here.

The show is about pedestrian safety on public roads, but many of the same issues apply to those who ride bicycles.

  • The American legal system makes vehicular manslaughter prosecution very difficult because “It’s just an accident.”
  • About 4,000 pedestrians lose their lives annually to auto traffic. Any other consumer product that killed 4,000 people annually would result in outrage and action.
  • “Distracted” walking, jaywalking, etc: If a pedestrian does something wrong, does he or she really deserve to die?
  • The dehumanization of anybody who doesn’t drive a car. The only people who matter are people who drive autos.
  • We don’t really know who’s at fault because the only witness is the surviving driver. Responding officer hears only one side of the story. See also Single Witness Suicide Swerve.
  • Oh that poor, traumatized, innocent driver who was just minding her own business when *wham* that pedestrian came out of nowhere to ruin her day!
  • “We reduce pedestrian fatalities by putting them in cars. The pedestrian fatality rate has fallen because we don’t have as many pedestrians anymore.” Get off the road!
  • Areas with high pedestrian and cyclist deaths “focus on improving traffic flow by making the roads wider, straight, and faster with the assumption that it’s safer. They apply Interstate freeway design guidelines — which are very safe because they are controlled access — and apply them to city streets and suburban streets. They create these arterial roads which turn out to be the most dangerous roads both for drivers and pedestrians.” Listen up, Santa Clara County Roads Department!
  • People don’t ask who roads are designed for. “People don’t ask it because we think we know what roads are designed for. It’s for cars, of course.” But if you ask people 100 years ago what streets are for, you’d hear different answers. None of them would have said streets are for cars, although there were a lot of cars then.
  • Facilities designed for bikes and pedestrians in Europe are not “just random actions” but a deliberate result of policies.
  • Europeans put an equal or even greater emphasis in their street design and policies on bike safety and public transit than on automobile transportation.
  • Europeans are not bashful at trying innovative strategies to improve pedestrian and bike safety. American traffic engineers are much more conservative.
  • Heavy media coverage of fatalities from freak occurrences followed up by demands to improve safety, but little mention of the 4,000 pedestrians killed annually by cars in the USA and no similar outrage to improve pedestrian safety. Why is that cost in lives so accepted?
  • “If we had 4000 people die each year in airplane crashes, something would be done.”

One comment

  • Pete
    April 12, 2016 - 2:26 pm | Permalink

    And slip lanes, don’t forget California’s obsession with letting people take right turns without slowing down (and while looking left, for the most part).

    On a similar note, I just started reading Janette Sadik-Khan’s “Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution” – interesting read so far, and will be gifting a copy to our city engineer in the hopes he will read it (he’s a good guy who’s personally improved many local bike lanes, so I’m optimistic he’ll take an interest).

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