Review: System Failure

If mushrooms killed or hospitalized 10,700 Canadians every year MPs would order committee hearings and mushroom regulations would fly like confetti.

Now replace the world “mushroom” with “traffic” and consider the fact accidents claim 10,700 casualties every year – this does not include 150,000 minor injuries – and the reaction is silence.

The 41st Parliament has not enacted a single new traffic safety initiative, but neither did the 40th or the 39th. A bill that would require installation of side guards on heavy trucks, C-344 An Act To Amend The Motor Vehicle Safety Act, has been stalled in the Commons since November 2011. Ontario’s chief coroner says it would save bicyclists and pedestrians from being dragged to their deaths, but Parliament appears to find the topic unexciting.

Author Neil Arason attempts to bring the country to its senses. No Accident is a compelling, plain-spoken appeal for what at first glance seems an incredible goal: to eliminate virtually all traffic fatalities. “The current situation is a system failure,” writes Arason, of the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators. “Because safety has not been the starting point for the design of the system, what we now have is an untreated public health problem.”

The result is that every family in Canada has experienced the anguish of a traffic casualty. “Like most young reporters, I found ways to harden myself when sent to someone’s home to ask for a photo of a child who had just been killed in an accident,” newspaperman Robert Fulford recalled in his memoirs Best Seat In The House (1988 Collins). “Strangely, no such family ever sent me away empty-handed; all of them seemed anxious to co-operate, as if the appearance of their child’s face in the next day’s paper would make this event less terrible or less random. Several times a sad young mother said to me something like, ‘I always told her, ‘Don’t cross the street without looking.’” When I became a parent – and anxious about my own children – those words echoed in my memory.”

Yet traffic safety has always been one of the most hard-fought reforms, fueled in part by resistance of auto manufacturers; complaints about cost; and the conviction that driver error is almost always to blame. As a GM executive put it in 1956, “The seat belt craze isn’t doing anything for the brains of the guy driving the car. Sure, we need thinner pillars and better vision, but this just encourages the nuts. Put belts and shoulder harnesses on them and they think they can do anything.”

In 1960 Cornell University published landmark research proving seatbelts prevented death and injury. It took 27 years for all provinces to enact mandatory seatbelt laws. Arason proposes more reforms like crash-proof auto sensors and better-designed pedestrian crosswalks, but many remedies require no engineering whatsoever.

Drivers’ licenses for 16-year olds? Arason notes the age limit is based on a 1903 Missouri state law that most countries reject since young drivers are most likely to cause accidents: “Today most sixteen-year olds do not quit school to work on the family farm, but we continue to license them to drive anyway.”

Impaired driving at a 0.08 blood alcohol level? Arason argues the standard is based on flawed research conducted in 1963, and disputed by scientists who conclude impairment for most drivers begins after the first drink. The standard is 0.02 in Sweden, 0.03 in Poland, 0.05 in The Netherlands.

Fifty-kilometre city speed limits? A campaign to cut speeds to 30 km/hour in Newcastle, U.K. resulted in a 24 percent reduction in the accident rate: “Injuries cannot be produced without speed,” Arason writes. “Speed, after all, is a factor in all road crash injuries and deaths.”

No Accident is a damning and persuasive appeal for public safety – and a glimpse into what driving will be like in Canada once lawmakers get around to it.

By Holly Doan

No Accident: Eliminating Injury and Death on Canadian Roads, by Neil Arason; Wilfrid Laurier University Press; 344 pages; ISBN 9781-5545-89630; $29.99

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