US Road Fatalities Spike After Years of Progress
18:56

US Road Fatalities Spike After Years of Progress

Cars
Speaker 1: For the longest time, since about 1970 us highway fatality numbers were going the right way in a big way. Look at this curve of the number of fatalities per year, plotted against our ever increasing population, but still resulting in a radically lower fatalities per vehicle, mild traveled, but then something changed in the last two or three years. Yes, it lines up with COVID, but that doesn't explain all of it. We seem to love big, heavy cars designed to be punishing [00:00:30] to pedestrians and cyclists. We drive 'em too fast and on roads that haven't really had their designs improved in many decades. Yona Freemark is a senior research associate at the urban Institute. He's done a lot of thinking about how we could improve this equation at a time when it's not favoring just about anybody who's outside of a car, but near one. And he says a lot of the answers may actually lie in France. Speaker 2: Overall automobile safety has improved because of better, [00:01:00] uh, automobile designs. And those have been executed, you know, since the 1970s, the introduction of the seatbelt, the introduction of airbags, uh, simply better designed vehicles as a whole that are better able to withstand crashes. All of those things put together, make it so vehicles all around the world are less likely to kill the people within them when they experience a crash. But we need to put on top of that regulations related to vehicle design and street design, [00:01:30] those two policies play a really important role in influencing how much people are likely to get killed on the street, especially pedestrians who are struck by cars and from that perspective over the last 20 years or so, we've seen quite a bit of a divergence between the United States and other major developed countries like France, which I studied in more depth. And I think that divergence really comes down to differences in policies related to street design and vehicle design. Speaker 1: [00:02:00] So one of the things you called out was, uh, a widespread usage of automatic speed cameras in France, which is pretty much unheard of in the us where you get automatic tickets sent to you. There's no interaction with law enforcement, nothing we're used to a much more old school. Analog pulled over side of the road model here. And I think Americans are almost like outraged by having this robotic thing automatically send them a ticket, but it sounds like it's made a real difference in other areas Speaker 2: Back in the 1970s [00:02:30] and up until the 1990s, actually France was considerably more dangerous for road users. People who were driving even pedestrians in France were more likely to kill, to be killed just by being on the street, then people in the United States. And there was an awareness in France that this was a major issue. The streets and the vehicles themselves were simply unsafe for people who were there. And then in 2002, the French government decided that, you know, it was really time to [00:03:00] put a stop to over speeding because speeding is one of the major causes of death on the roadways. Obviously when you speed really quickly down a highway, you're much more likely to die if you get in a crash. And so what they did was implement a series of automated speed cameras on highways all over the country. And you will see that anytime you drive down a major French highway, you'll see a sign that said you're about to be monitored for your speed. Speaker 2: Then you see a camera go off. If you go a little too quickly and you'll get a speeding ticket in the mail. Now [00:03:30] Americans in some cities are familiar with red light cameras. Where if you go through a red light, you might get your license photographed and then you have to pay a ticket. This is very similar to that, except for it applies to speeding. And I think that both examples are actually really important for reducing fatalities because what they do is they tell people, Hey, guess what? You're going to get a major financial penalty. You're gonna have to pay a lot of money, hundreds of euros. In some cases, if you go over the speed limit and it worked, people's [00:04:00] speeding really went down in France and we just don't have a system like that in the United States. Speaker 1: We all know the cat and mouse game. For the most part, police can't be everywhere. They're usually not where you are. Most of us will drive down the highway and speed for minutes or hours on end and never see a police officer. So we know it's highly unlikely that they're going to have eyes on us, but the camera is the eye that is there 24 7 and never sleeps. Speaker 2: That's right. You know, I think in the United States, we have a lot of concerns [00:04:30] about the surveillance state, but the current system is making it. So it's really easy to speed. And the fact is that speeding has some really dangerous consequences for people who are on our road. So we need to weigh those two, uh, areas of concern against one another and come up with a strategy that actually reduce deaths. Speaker 1: There's a rating system in Europe for safety ratings. Uh, I understand from your work where they do judge the car, partly based on how well it, I guess, protects or doesn't injure pedestrians and cyclists, we [00:05:00] don't really have that in our ratings. I don't Speaker 2: Think the United States has pursued a policy related to automobile safety. That's all about the occupants of the car. It's just saying airbags to protect the occupants seat belts, keep the occupants in their seat, a cage around those occupants to make sure that if they run into something, the car will protect them. All those things are really important, but the reality is that other people use the roadway system and predominant among them are pedestrians who are extremely vulnerable because they don't have a cage around them. [00:05:30] They have no protection. And the United States has chosen not to develop automobile safety standards that are designed to protect pedestrians, both in terms of testing. And in terms of requirements. On the other hand, the European union does actually have very strong requirements in that front. They have, uh, requirements related to the design of the hood so that when a pedestrian is hit by the hood, there's, uh, an ability to sort of bounce off of it. So that pedestrians are less likely to be injured. They also are implementing automated [00:06:00] stopping systems that are becoming required. So cars are less likely to literally run into somebody in the first place. I would say combined with that is a different design of the streets themselves that makes it so pedestrians are just safer walking around and crossing the street than they are in most parts of the United States, Speaker 1: At least where I am here in San Francisco. We're starting to see a lot of changes. Uh, I guess there are probably baby steps compared to what you've seen in other markets, but where they put, uh, these bulb out curbs. So it's much harder to cut that corner tight. If you're driving and [00:06:30] clip a pedestrian, what are some other things that you think are very effective in terms of those roadway designs that allow pedestrians and cars to coexist safely? And I'm saying it that way because so many people let's face it. We're a car-centric culture. They see a war on cars. When you talk about this. And I don't think it has to be seen that way. It's not like pushing the cars out of their roadway. It's about a coexistence, not which one wins. Speaker 2: I think the reality is we need to reverse that right now. You know, we need to realize that the [00:07:00] current American street is a war on pedestrians. Americans are more than three times as likely to be killed as a pedestrian, as French people. And that's despite the fact that French people walk considerably more than Americans do. And when you're in that environment, that implies that there's something very wrong with the design of our streets, we're doing something very unfair to pedestrians and putting them in dangerous situations. Now, I think there are some very clear ways to address this problem. One of [00:07:30] them is the creation of VO outs. As you pointed out, shortening crossing distances between one side of the street and the other, so people can get across more quickly. Speaker 1: Oh yeah. Some of those crosswalks and some American boulevards boy, it's like a, you gotta pack a lunch for that trip. It's a long way to the other side. Speaker 2: Well, if you have a crosswalk at all, frankly, a lot of people living in suburban or exurban locations throughout the United States, don't even have a crosswalk to use. And so they have to dart between cars and put themselves in a lot of danger. [00:08:00] So we need to add pedestrian amenities like crosswalks, like improved shortened walking distances. We also need to reduce speed limits so that cars literally are not driving as quickly. And then I think a lot of, uh, European cities, especially in France have been successful with the installation of traffic circles. And, you know, Americans, I think are pretty unfamiliar or even uncomfortable with traffic circles, which basically replace a stoplight and a stop [00:08:30] sign with a circle. But the reality is that those types of intersections are much safer for both car occupants and for pedestrians because what they do is they slow down traffic and they prevent the sort of possibility oft collisions between cars. Speaker 1: They just soften everything. I think as the, as the, I like the word you use there, we don't come to abrupt stops. At 90 degree angles, we come to gradual yields at circular angles. It's a completely different sort of dynamic. And yet, [00:09:00] you know, Yona, we don't know how to use traffic circles in this country. We, we're still trying to figure it out in the few cities that have some, Speaker 2: This is a learning issue, as much as it is a, you know, a, a, a policy issue, you know, Americans need to change their attitudes about the way the straight work street works. Part of that means introducing new technologies or designs like traffic cameras or, uh, traffic circles. But part of it also means people getting more used to those designs as something that is actually [00:09:30] not gonna impede them. In many cases, it will actually make traffic smoother because you're less likely to have traffic crashes, which are gonna stop the highway for example. And you're less likely to have to get stopped at a traffic light because you're going in a circle. And so you never actually really have to stop unless there's a pedestrian. So there's some real benefits to moving to those alternative approaches. Speaker 1: It took me a little getting used to the first time I encountered them traveling abroad, uh, a number of years ago. I love 'em now because you, you keep moving and most Americans, [00:10:00] well, I think most drivers of any country, we're a little impatient. We, we, we just wanna keep moving, but the traffic circle, I think, feeds into that appetite, we have to keep moving. So I think it's got great potential to become really popular if we just get people to, to understand how to use them better. I think it requires a little more brain power to be honest than a, than a 90 degree intersection. Uh, question about merchants and retailers is they look at these kinds of street designs where you're putting in, uh, maybe guarded pedestrian lanes, uh, or I'm sorry, bicycle lanes, and then a separate sidewalk. [00:10:30] Maybe the parking starts to get less and further from the store frontage. They feel like they're being pushed away from their traditional vehicular customers. Speaker 2: You know, there are a lot of merchants out there who will tell you that they're getting all their business from people driving, but then when you go ask their customers how they got there, you'll find that a huge share of them got there by walking, by biking and by taking public transportation. And when you find that out, you start to question, huh, is the priority for every [00:11:00] business really needing to be, you know, uh, best automobile access as possible. And what we've seen when we've looked at studies of changes to streets and their impact on business is that actually typically the response by customers is to increase the amount of time that they visit businesses and expand the amount of money that they spend at those businesses. When the business becomes on a street that is more walkable and livable, and, you know, there, there's a good reason [00:11:30] to, to, to understand this. And that is that people like going to places that are friendly, that are comfortable and feel safe to go to and a street with cars passing at 45 miles per hour, right in front of a business is not that type of location. Speaker 1: Let's finish up now with a discussion of a related and very interesting topic, which is vehicle weight. Uh, we touched a little bit on this a moment ago, but tell me about the role of vehicle weight in terms of safety, uh, in terms of fatalities and [00:12:00] injuries and what you would suggest we do about it. Speaker 2: And in fact, since 1980, the average weight of a new car sold in the United States has gone up by about 33%, which is just remarkable. It means that our cars are just really heavy on the road today. One of the fundamental reasons that so many people are getting killed on the road today in the United States is that our cars are really heavy and they have really big hoods, especially all the SUVs and pickup trucks that we have on the roads. [00:12:30] Now, you know, it's crazy, but more than three quarters of new vehicles sold in the United States every year are pickup trucks and SUVs. And those cars are really heavy and they have really big hoods and they're very likely to kill a pedestrian when they run into them. And the reason for that is number one, all that weight running into a person is likely to simply destroy their body in a way that less weighty vehicle is less likely to do another is that that high hood [00:13:00] is likely to strike a, a pedestrian near their chest or their head, which is much more dangerous for their life than a smaller car, which is more likely to strike their legs. Speaker 2: And so we have developed a sort of new vehicle purchasing system in the United States that encourages people to buy bigger and bigger cars every year. So I think the question is whether there's a possibility to address this. And I think that there are two primary sort of policy levers. One is [00:13:30] to tax the weight itself to say that, you know, you're going to pay a higher registration fee if you buy a heavier vehicle because your heavier vehicle is more likely to go and kill somebody. If you happen to be having a bad driving day and hit somebody, you know, for accident or not. And Washington DC has actually implemented a new vehicle, weight based registration fee system. That's going to essentially encourage people to buy lighter vehicles. And that's something that's in place in France [00:14:00] today. I think related to that is implementing a environmental fee, uh, on new vehicles, which is basically to say, if your vehicle pollutes more, then you're going to pay a higher fee to actually buy that vehicle. And in France, they have that as well. And it can go up to actually 40,000 euros on top of the price of a car, which is a huge amount of money, but it has successfully actually kept the weights of fringe vehicles significantly lower [00:14:30] than the weights of American vehicles. You Speaker 1: Know, car makers obviously would hear this and say, wait a minute, our bread and butter is utilities and trucks. They're not only the majority of sales as you point out, it's been an amazing shift, but there also are higher profit vehicles. So they might say, well, how about this? If we can, through technology, lightweight those vehicles and take some of that weight back out and completely install, automatic emergency braking technology, which is relatively prevalent. Do you think that would, that would be enough or [00:15:00] is that remaining factor of the big high frontal mass still too much of a bad guy? Speaker 2: Well, the high frontal mass is a huge problem that auto makers can absolutely address. They are choosing to design their vehicles in this way from an aesthetic perspective, not from a functional perspective, there's no reason why these trucks have to be designed with a frontal, you know, hood that goes up vertically like this. And it's designed to whack pedestrians as they're going down the street. They don't have to design their vehicles that way, [00:15:30] and we could require them to have different vehicle designs. And frankly, I think it would encourage a lot of creativity among the automobile designers to create new designs that are safer, and that can be aesthetic aesthetically appealing in different ways. Now that said, I think that all the strategies you pointed out would be great. Reducing vehicle mass tomorrow would probably save a bunch of lives. It would reduce carbon pollution and it would make our streets, you know, healthier [00:16:00] places to be in. So, you know, I think that that would be a, a positive move. The problem is the federal government has made no effort whatsoever to restrict vehicle weights. And so the auto makers themselves don't really have an incentive to do so. They are actually increasing vehicle weights in some places because of the installation of battery technology. Speaker 1: The electric car comes along with so many good guys, but it it's one huge Achilles heel is it's a big, heavy vehicle. Speaker 2: The oven of electric vehicles [00:16:30] is great from an environmental perspective in some ways, but really challenging from the weight perspective. So ideally we find a way to, you know, get a, a better compromise out of those two. And I think we need public action regulations of some sort to help move us in that direction. Speaker 1: Is there anything about this moment, sociologically? What are you hearing cuz all the things you're talking about have been in place a long time. We've been buying heavy vehicles a long time. Our roads have been designed this way for ages. These are all old existing problems [00:17:00] that need addressing and yet still the curve went up. What do you think is driving the last few years? It looks like two or three years that we've been trending up again since the infrastructure in the vehicles haven't changed that much in two or three Speaker 2: Years. I absolutely think that the COVID period has been associated with the rise of really, uh, dangerous driving. And that rise in dangerous driving has not been associated with efforts to reduce that dangerous driving by enforcement, [00:17:30] whether automated or otherwise. You know, we, I think have been going through a lot of interesting and cons, you know, uh, politically charged periods in the United States where we have a racial justice movement that has criticized fairly the abuses of the policing system and have said, we need to stop, you know, enforcing all of these things on predominantly people of color. But at the same time we've had streets that have been historically more empty than they have been in the past, especially during the beginning of the COVID [00:18:00] crisis, that we're allowing people to speed at crazy levels, with no effort by the police or an automated system to enforce that speed. Speaker 2: And frankly, we need to address that, that gap there. We need to come up with systems that are not, uh, related to the criminal justice system. For example, we shouldn't necessarily be putting people in jail for speeding, but we should absolutely be charging them for speeding in terms of cost. You know, people should not be feeling like they have the ability to go around their [00:18:30] cities at 40, 50, 60 miles per hour. Uh, and endang pedestrians and themselves in the process. We need to come up with a, a sort of ability to keep people in check, keep the transportation system moving at a reasonable pace. That's not dangerous for those in it while also not putting, uh, people of color in danger from over-policing.

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