Can we eliminate death and serious injury from our roadways?

After nine passengers died on the Red Line in 2009, we didn’t throw up our hands and chalk it up to issues beyond our control. Instead, the region has seen serious debate and action — however imperfect — to ensure that no one is killed or seriously injured while riding Metro.

Why, then, do we take a more defeatist attitude toward the safety of our roadways? Why do our elected officials insist that there’s no way to free our roadways of death and serious injury, while sparing no expense or energy on air travel or rail safety measures?

A nation with one of the world’s lowest rates of roadway death and injury offers a different vision. It should challenge us to ask some difficult questions and examine the expectations we have of our road system.

Sweden, long known for its excellent road safety record, has led the way in creating a new paradigm for addressing this persistent public health problem. In 1997, the Swedish Parliament adopted the “Vision Zero” policy, which sets a goal of reducing roadway fatalities and serious injuries to zero.

While there will continue to be crashes on Swedish roadways resulting in recoverable injury, the underlying philosophy of Vision Zero rests on an ethical understanding that death and lifelong suffering from severe injury are not acceptable byproducts of our transportation system.

We accept this ethical standard for our freight rail, mass transit and air travel systems but each day, our roadway system gets a pass on unnecessary tragedy. Most crashes resulting in death or serious injury, involving all types of road users, are caused not by willful negligence on the part of the road user. They often involve everyday people on roads that put them at unnecessary risk.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A generation ago, we recognized the role of vehicle safety and created a vehicle-based safety culture focused on seat belts, air bags, and anti-lock brakes. The safety culture then broadened to include operator behavior, with a focus on drunk driving, road rage, and distracted driving. It’s time to systematically include roadway design in our safety culture.

At a Montgomery County Council transportation subcommittee hearing last month, council member Marc Elrich argued that the number of roadway deaths could never be reduced to zero.

“People will die as long as they do stupid stuff,” Erlich said. “You can’t make this world so safe that no one can be harmed.”

In a follow-up, Elrich aide Dale Tibbitts added, “Of course we wish to make environment safe for everyone,” listing various pedestrian safety initiatives in the county. “Despite all these efforts,” he argued, “if a driver, a pedestrian or a bicyclist acts negligently, the County cannot prevent every tragic incident.” Tibbitts continued, “When the police report to us that a person dressed in dark clothing stepped out in Georgia Ave on a dark night and was struck by a car traveling 35-40 mph and was killed, that is beyond the scope of what the Council can legislate and fund.”

The “Vision Zero” philosophy does not envision a magical world where nothing bad happens on our roadways. Crashes will continue to happen. Suicides and reckless behavior will always lead to tragedy. But there are thousands of deaths and serious injuries each year caused not by reckless behavior but by a system that is dangerous by design, where pedestrians have to walk unreasonable distances to a safe crossing along high-speed roadways through populated areas.

At present, road users are operating within a system that encourages speeding, especially along corridors such as Georgia Avenue. As council member Nancy Floreen noted at the same meeting, “We should give greater thought to our design standards. Who’s winning the speed battle? Shouldn’t we do all we can to allow the pedestrians more respect than our systems currently allow?” This philosophy balances responsibility on two parties: roadway users and roadway designers.

The defeatist attitude that death and serious injury will always happen on our streets has become the conventional wisdom for our roadways, but not for our railways, airways or transit systems. We wouldn’t be complacent if thousands of Americans died each year on our nation’s subways or airplanes, but that’s exactly what happens on our roads.

When it comes to preventing death and serious injury, we too often focus on individual behavior and vehicle safety but ignore the crucial role of roadway design, which leads to one of the deadliest ingredients in any crash: speed. Road design changes, such as traffic calming, have proven effective at improving road safety.

Most roadway deaths and serious injuries are preventable. Why have we convinced ourselves that they are not?

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.


About Stephen Miller
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One Response to Can we eliminate death and serious injury from our roadways?

  1. Susan Meehan says:

    Living in the Dupont Circle area, I see cyclists all the time, and welcome their presence. I have been keeping a running total of cyclists with helmets on and cyclists without helmets. Right now, it’s somewhere around two-thirds without helmets. This is not good at all, and I give you the following reason for my concern.

    I had a friend who was in a bad bike accident many years ago while crossing Key Bridge. He was hit by a truck and slammed into one of the Jersey barriers near where the exit for the Whitehurst Expressway is located. He was not wearing a helmet. As a result of his head injuries, he developed amnesia for twelve years, and eventually died. True story.

    I cannot urge cyclists enough to always, always wear helmets. Knowing who you are is more important than how your haircut/hairdo is going to look worse once you arrive at your destination and take off the helmet. Even one such story is too great a tragedy; think how your family would be affected if you were to be so badly injured when you didn’t have to be. No bike accident is worth taking a chance and riding helmet-less. I would NEVER get onto my recumbent without first strapping on my helmet. My white hair may get mussed up, but if I had an accident, at least my 72-year old brain would have a better chance. Vanity shouldn’t trump safety ever, ever. You are too precious to a lot of people to make it worthwhile to take such a risk. Please listen to this DC granny – in this case, I believe I’m speaking for your family!

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