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NPR reports on America's deadly roads, but blames under-policing instead of street design

No one can deny that deaths on American roads are higher than ever, but commentators are still free to get creative when deciding who to blame for it. NPR just published a report arguing that rising traffic deaths are mainly caused by law enforcement policies. Nowhere do they mention the ways in which our streets are engineered to be deadly by design.

You can read their report here: “America’s roads are more dangerous, as police pull over fewer drivers.” They assert that there’s a correlation between decreased policing and increased traffic deaths, citing statistical data and quotes from experts. There may be truth to this, but it misses the forest for the trees.

If a transportation system requires a police force to prevent itself from killing people, then it’s a bad transportation system. We’re not talking about stopping violent criminals, but rather ordinary citizens who are using the system as its designed. That is not how you would discuss a system which works well.

The belief that we need to get the “bad drivers” off the streets and let the rest of us “good drivers” stay does not align with reality, as if none of us have ever driven above the speed limit or taken our eyes off the road. We do indeed need to decrease the number of cars on our streets, but we can’t do that while we keep investing more and more public money into a car-centric system. In most of our towns, the transportation system makes driving almost mandatory for everyone regardless of their ability. Governments have continuously expanded our streets for more cars to drive faster, and this comes at the expense of every other mobility option. Using law enforcement to remove drivers treats a symptom rather than the illness.

The NPR article notes that the rate of traffic deaths was lower in 2019 than it is today, as if 2019’s rate was something to aspire to. It was still unacceptably high then, and it has been trending upwards for decades. Bringing deaths down from a disastrous amount to a slightly-less disastrous amount isn’t the solution we need.

The antidote to our deadly roads is a medicine that seems too hard to swallow for most of our leaders. We need to divest from car-centric transportation and invest in walkable and bikeable communities instead. We need to make our cars smaller and slower, make our streets narrower, and remove “free” parking. Unless we can move in that direction, then traffic deaths will continue to stay high.

Framing our deadly transportation system as a policing issue might be fine for an attention-grabbing headline, but it’s not the conversation we should be having. The public needs to hear more about the underlying problems that cause our roads to be deadly in the first place. As I wrote recently, our transportation system is a disaster to human life, and no one cares. Responsible news organizations should draw attention to these fundamental issues rather than reframe them around more sensational topics.

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