By Zachary Shahan and Johnna Crider
There’s an interesting article published recently in The Atlantic, but one reading of it could also come across as disturbing. On the surface, it may seem as though the author is supporting the idea that drivers shouldn’t be held accountable or responsible for their actions while behind the wheel. If you get into an accident because you were speeding, “there, there, it’s okay, it’s the fault of the fog and the car.”
The article might be seen as questioning the legitimacy of blaming drivers who are at fault for causing accidents. A concern one might have is that it’s leading us down a path of blaming roads and cars for accidents and letting drivers shirk their responsibility and pay no consequences.
However, one core point of the article is that we simplify too much when talking about road accidents — people in the media, researchers, government agencies, and individuals. There can be — and often is — more than one problem that led to an accident, especially a fatal accident, but we consistently simplify it by putting all of the responsibility on the driver. The author mentions a two-page memo from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that declares:
“The critical reason, which is the last event in the crash causal chain, was assigned to the driver in 94% of the crashes.
“Although the critical reason is an important part of the description of events leading up to the crash, it is not intended to be interpreted as the cause of the crash.”
US Traffic Deaths Compared With EU
What’s the point of all of this? Importantly, the point is not to say, “hey, this driver shouldn’t pay a fine for reckless driving, because the road design is not good.” The point is to put more attention into solving systemic problems that are a partial cause — or one cause — of many accidents. The best thing to highlight this is the difference between Europe and the US in the past decade.
The article puts forth the fact that US road fatalities have risen by over 10% over the past decade while having simultaneously fallen across most of the developed world. The article noted that in the European Union, traffic deaths dropped by 36% between 2010 and 2018. European countries have made significant changes to road design regulations and automobile requirements in that time, and they’ve been working to cut fatalities. The US has focused on: “it’s just the driver’s fault.” The article highlights that the “94% of the crashes are the driver’s fault” statistic is routinely used across the media, academia, and government. And, too often, that’s the end of it — no more lessons to learn, just need better drivers.
“The 94 percent line is a repeated reference at almost every state [department of transportation] conference I’ve ever attended,” Jennifer Homendy, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, stated.
Over 20,000 people died on American roadways from January to June this year. A lot of those fatalities came from driver error, but a lot also must have had other contributing factors that we can learn from.
On the car side, blind-spot-detection should be included in all new vehicles instead of drivers having to pay extra out of pocket for that. Smaller vehicles rather than larger vehicles should be incentivized more so that when there are accidents, they are not so likely to be fatal. Better semi-autonomous or autonomous driving tech. But also …
In terms of transportation engineering and transportation planning, stop building roads that are designed for 60 mph travel — and entice people to drive fast — in an area where the speed limit is 25 mph. Design roadways that encourage people to drive carefully rather than encouraging them to step on the pedal harder. Provide more and safer pedestrian and bicycling facilities so that pedestrians and bikers are not effectively dodging bullets when going to the store, school, or a friend’s house.
“Blaming the bad decisions of road users implies that nobody else could have prevented them,” the author states. “That enables car companies to deflect attention from their decisions to add heft and height to the SUVs and trucks that make up an ever-larger portion of vehicle sales, and it allows traffic engineers to escape scrutiny for dangerous street designs.”
At the very least, let’s dig into what Europe is doing to well to cut traffic fatalities while the USA’s go up.
Of course, that’s not to say driver responsibility and continued or improved driver education isn’t important as well. It all is.
One notable point right now is that billions upon billions of dollars are going to go into road, bridge, and other transportation infrastructure projects thanks to the infrastructure bill recently passed by the US House and Senate. Tying that funding to smart, safe projects could go a long way toward cutting traffic fatalities in the United States.