When it comes to traffic, we live in a world where just one error or slip up can change a life forever or cut it short by an unexpected burst of fury. Even though road deaths are gruesome affairs, the overall topic gets little space in serious public discussion.
In Canada alone, over 235,000 people have been killed in motor vehicle crashes since 1950. In the last ten years, over 187,000 people have been hospitalized from traffic, and there has been no progress in reducing fatalities and major injuries for pedestrians and cyclists. What we are left with is an untreated public health problem.
For all these deaths and injuries we mostly just blame drivers. But humans are fallible; just consider all the factors that play havoc for millions of drivers over billions of hours of driving: alcohol; drugs; distraction; speed; lack of attentiveness; fatigue; complacency; a blinding sun, an icy road; an innocent mistake; inexperience; faltering driving ability; and drivers with no concern for others. We now have over one hundred years of documented evidence to show that trying to get people to drive better does not work.
Instead, the majority of injury reduction progress has come from the way we design cars and roads and set and manage speeds: changes that work automatically by design. One study estimates that in the United States, from 1960 to 2002, better vehicle safety standards and technologies saved approximately 328,551 lives. The evidence for good road design is also colossal.
Making such improvements will yield an excellent return on investment. This is because the current situation is estimated to cost Canada approximately $63 billion each year, with many countries estimating that road crashes cost their economies about two to three percent of their gross domestic product.
It is now time to design things based on a sensible approach and on how the world really works. Some world leaders have declared the road safety problem to be an epidemic and have laid out great plans to tackle it. As a result, road safety performance now varies nine-fold across many countries, and Canada’s per capita road crash fatality rate is over double that of the world’s best performers.
Such differences are just the beginning. With new international thinking has come Vision Zero: the idea that we can design death and injury right out of the system. Vision Zero is embraced in the European Union, Australia and, as of this past week, the United States. Vision Zero is now accepted as fully realistic. The Netherlands and Sweden launched the new paradigm in the 1990s, Sweden even enshrining it in law.
According to the Swedes, “In every situation a person might fail, the road system should not.” Then there is the Volvo Car Company who just accepts people for what they are and gets on with the business of designing cars accordingly; they have the goal that by 2020 no Volvo of that model year or later will kill or seriously injure any road user, not even a pedestrian or cyclist. To help realize its vision, the company uses collision avoidance systems that rely on radar and cameras which are massively falling in price.
To systematically reduce and then eliminate the number of car-related injuries and deaths, we can start to think of road crashes not as accidents but as system failures. It is no longer about what causes accidents but what causes safety. It is possible to embark on a plan to eliminate one of this country’s greatest causes of human trauma, pain, and suffering. To do this, we must transform the way we think about road safety and the priority we give it. With a federal election just around the corner, it would be an excellent time to start a new conversation.
(Editor’s note: Neil Arason is the author of No Accident: Eliminating Injury and Death on Canadian Roads)