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Good Public Transit

Why Do We Accept Traffic Deaths as Part of Life?

Texas anticipates that 3,791 people will die every year from traffic accidents. Why is that okay?
By Peter Simek |

If you’ve turned on the news at any point in the last couple of months, you’ll know that airplane manufacturer Boeing is in hot water. Early this year, a couple of its new 737 Max 8 aircraft crashed likely because a malfunction in the plane’s anti-stall system. A total of 346 people were killed in the two incidents, a death toll frightening enough to “traumatize” the airline industry.

Meanwhile, in Texas, an average of 3,609.4 people have died every year on state roads between 2013 and 2017. The reaction? Celebration. After all, state transportation agencies were shooting to limit the number of deaths to 3,791.

How is this okay? How is it that traffic deaths are routine and cause little concern or worry? How are they accepted as simply a part of life? How come we build our cities and economies around a form of transportation in which death is one of several costs of doing business?

One possible answer: the statistics themselves are to blame.

A couple of pieces on Streetsblog help break down the problem. The first one is about a new federal program that has been set up to challenge states to reduce road deaths. Will it work? Well, as the first set of new targets reveal, states are satisfied with marginal reductions in the number of people who die on roads each year and show little initiative in making the kinds of structural investments that could substantively reduce the problem. For example, even though the baseline 5-year average of traffic fatalities in Texas is around 3,609, the new goal is 3,791.

The picture looks the same in other states — a widespread accepted anticipation of a small increase in annual traffic related deaths. The “reductions” only make sense when you look at another statistic: fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Here you can see that state agencies anticipate the total number of vehicle miles traveled to increase, and so the goal is to reduce or stabilize the rate of death, not the actual number of deaths.

This is actually an old statistical trick. Another Streetsblog piece from 2015 breaks down a study by Boston University professor Itali Vardi, which tried to answer the question of how and why Americans began to accept traffic deaths as normal. It wasn’t always the case. There was resistance early on to the proliferation of the automobile in American cities based on moral concerns—i.e. the fact that they were killing people. During this early backlash, statistics helped frame the staggering cost of the automobile revolution.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board, for example, told readers in 1922: “Blame the buzzwagon for nearly 15,000 violent deaths in America last year.”

Automobile manufacturers and enthusiasts fought back with statistics, framing the deaths not by total bodies but instead by deaths per miles traveled.  Another coup came two years later:

A big victory for the auto industry came in 1924, Vardi reports, when the National Conference on Street and Highway Safety, convened by President Herbert Hoover, agreed to adopt the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce’s preferred safety metric: fatalities per vehicle.

By analyzing traffic deaths as a percentage of use, automobile manufacturers and advocates admitted that deaths were simply part of the cost of introducing cars into the American landscape. The goal wasn’t to eliminate traffic deaths, but to reduce deaths in relation to expanded vehicle usage. As more cars hit the streets, the number of deaths would go up. But if the rate of death could be stabilized or reduced, the American public could be convinced that car travel was becoming safer, despite the cost of thousands of lives a year.

There was another statistical slight-of-hand that also helped dampen concern over traffic deaths. Transportation agencies began forecasting death tolls and setting benchmarks for reducing those anticipated fatalities. When the actual number of traffic deaths fell short of the projected deaths, agencies advertised the “lives saved” by their safety programs.

Vardi calls “saving lives” — which is actually part of NHTSA’s motto — “a rhetorical device to meet institutional goals.”

Forecasting future deaths, Vardi writes, also sidesteps the tricky question of what is an acceptable number of deaths.

This statistical exercise “advances ideas of normal or reasonable death rates, which… may downplay mass carnage,” says Vardi.

These statistical strategies allow transportation agencies to bypass some commonsense solutions to reducing traffic deaths, namely, figuring out ways to build cities so that cars travel more safely or people rely less on automobile travel. Instead, they incentivize the expansion of automobile use because, despite an increase in the total number of deaths, reductions in the anticipated number of deaths or in the deaths-per-mile can be sold as safety victories.

There are some efforts to reverse this analytical framework and set new safety guidelines that try to reduce the overall number of traffic deaths. Los Angeles launched Vision Zero LA in 2016 in an effort to reduce the number of traffic-related deaths in the city to zero. Projects initiated by Vision Zero target infrastructure improvements like the redesign of cross walks and re-timing of traffic lights.

The project has had mixed results. After all, it is trying to correct for decades of street design that has favored expanding vehicle miles traveled over keeping people safe. But at least Vision Zero has a more humane goal than this latest federal safety push: acknowledging that all traffic deaths are unacceptable.

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