illustration by Scotty Reifsnyder

Why We’ve Made Our Roads Faster, Deadlier

A look at one Dallas street shows us how engineers choose speed over safety.

You’ve undoubtedly experienced the game of chicken that occurs at every intersection with each turn of the light from green to yellow. You’re in the left turn lane, awaiting a break in the river of cars streaming in the opposite direction. Is that driver in the oncoming car going to see the yellow light and begin braking, thereby allowing you to press the gas? Or will he accelerate to beat the red, forcing you to wait in the middle of the intersection? This isn’t exactly the delicate ballet Jane Jacobs had in mind when she described the public street in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Two-ton SUVs with texting teenagers at the helm don’t inspire dance metaphors.

The particular intersection I have in mind is at the convergence of Buckner Boulevard and Garland Road. Two people were killed there in 2008. But it could be Buckner and Ferguson, where a teenage boy lost his life that same year. Or it could be Buckner and John West, where the previous year two pedestrians were struck and killed, including a 13-year-old girl.

I know this because a UK-based company called ITO World mapped almost every traffic-related fatality on American roads from 2001 to 2009. Nearly half a million deaths. It isn’t pretty. Well, the graphic actually is. Highways look like strings of multicolored Christmas lights. But then the implication crashes into you: each orange, blue, and purple icon represents a vehicle occupant, motorcyclist, or pedestrian killed. The 2-mile segment of Buckner mentioned above accounted for 13 deaths during that period.

The larger Loop 12 ring, of which Buckner is a part, accounts for 131 deaths. Many happened at intersections. Oddly, though, the safest stretch of Loop 12 is the 2 miles of Northwest Highway that run between the Tollway and Central Expressway, where only two people died during the nine-year span shown on the ITO World map. For comparison, a 2-mile stretch of Central at Northwest Highway is dotted with 19 traffic fatalities.

I write about transportation so frequently because transportation policy, funding, planning, and design have a profound effect on city form and human behavior. They determine how we get to the store and whether we’ll make it home alive. Critiquing any one intersection is a futile exercise. There will be a gas station on one corner, a drive-through bank and fast food restaurant sitting kitty-corner, and a Starbucks will assuredly occupy the fourth. The pavement will be the same as at any other intersection, the traffic signals and engineering, too. The neighborhood adjacent to the hypothetical intersection matters little. The intersection could have been designed in an office hundreds of miles away, using a formula, without anyone ever actually visiting the site. And, in effect, it was.

The irony is that many Dallas roads like Buckner have been widened and expanded as a form of “improvement.” So we’re told. Neighborhood meetings are held. Residents are promised better functionality and safety. But one undermines the other. Because for the traffic engineer with this formula, functionality means speed. Vehicle velocity is the goal, not saving time or energy, nor necessarily reducing fatalities. Higher-speed roads get higher grades. A pedestrian crossing the street to the store? Very slow. And a hazard. F.

SoHo and Greenwich Village exist today and are in high demand because those neighborhoods weren’t designed with speed in mind. Their smaller, safer, and, yes, slower streets foster interpersonal connections. And more important, the ITO World map shows that those two areas account for only nine deaths, or one per year, for 50,000 residents. Some back-of-the-envelope math reveals that even though the Buckner area is less populous, there’s a 750 percent greater chance of dying in traffic there than in those New York neighborhoods.

Predictably, these high-speed intersections are safest when the lights malfunction. A transformer somewhere blows a fuse, power in the grid goes down, and we’re left with blinking reds. What do we do? We look around. We make eye contact with other drivers. Author Tom Vanderbilt theorizes in his book Traffic that it is eye contact that rehumanizes other drivers. They are no longer automatons clumsily operating on a theoretically perfect, but practically imperfect, conveyor belt. An order emerges as the blinking reds make the intersection operate like a four-way stop, the safest sort of intersection. Your turn, my turn. Drivers are polite again.

So what is our top priority? Is it moving fast or keeping citizens safe? Are we human yet? Formula says no.

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