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The pandemic-era traffic death paradox

One of this blog’s refrains is that we need to lower the number of cars on our streets to stop people from dying in crashes. Cars are inherently dangerous and, as they get larger and faster, they grow more deadly every year. However, our “new abnormal” has presented a paradox: Americans drove far less this year, but traffic deaths went up. How is that possible? Of course, true paradoxes don’t exist, only apparent paradoxes. Alissa Walker, writing for Curbed, has a report on the topic:

So what was happening? The biggest factor, NHTSA’s report suggests, may be twofold: the type of driver who was still out making trips during the pandemic despite stay-at-home orders and the driving behavior that the empty streets allowed.

(Emphasis mine.)

That second point is the one that got my attention. The big picture is that cars and drivers are not the only the only pieces of the equation. The design of our streets plays an enormous role.

Most streets and roads in America are designed so that vehicles can move “safely” as fast as they want. That means our streets are wide, straight, and clear of obstacles around them. But driving as fast as you want is inherently dangerous, both to the drivers and to the people around them, including pedestrians and bicycle riders. So our streets, ironically, end up enabling dangerous behaviors.

It seems like this cycle was kept at an equilibrium for a while thanks to congestion, which forces drivers to slow down and pay attention. When congestion disappeared, drivers were free to live their Mad Max fantasies.

This particular quote from the NHTSA’s report struck me:

Faster travel, whether or not actually exceeding the speed limit, increases the chance of fatalities in a crash.

In other words, drivers can follow the speed limit, and presumably all other laws as well, and still be at a higher risk of killing someone. That sure sounds like an formal admittance that our streets are deadly-by-design.

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