Commentary

Killer pave

The new figures on the national road deaths are out, and if you’re one of those who gets around on two wheels or two feet you can probably thank the millions of government dollars spent on “Click It or Ticket” for helping make your life more dangerous.

All the people safely buckled into their ever-safer cars helped push the death toll for motor-vehicle occupants down for the third straight year, according to the National Highway Safety Administration (NHSA).

Outside the passenger compartments of those cars and trucks, however, things weren’t looking so good in 2018. While passenger-car deaths went down 5.3 percent, the NHSA reported, pedalcyclist deaths went up 6.3 percent and pedestrian deaths jumped 3.4 percent.

Both of the latter recorded the highest death tolls since 1990, the report said. One out of every five people killed on the roads in the U.S. in 2018 was on a bike, a motorcycle or on foot.

Over the course of the past decade, the NHSA reported, the biggest change in deaths is for “nonoccupant fatalities as a proportion of overall traffic fatalities, increasing from 14 percent to 20 percent from 2009 to 2018. During this same decade, the percentage
of passenger car occupant fatalities decreased from 39 percent of the fatalities to 35 percent. The percentage of light-truck occupant fatalities decreased from 30 percent
in 2009 to 27 percent in 2018. The proportion of motorcyclist fatalities increased from 13 percent of the fatalities to 14 percent, and the proportion of large truck, bus, and other vehicle occupant fatalities increased from 3 percent to 4 percent.”

People in motor vehicles continue to comprise the bulk of deaths, however, according to the report. This is to be expected given there are far more people in motor vehicles in this country on any given day than on foot or cycling.

Almost 24,000 of the 36,560 dead in 2018 were in passenger cars, sport-utility vehicles, light trucks or large trucks. Motorcycle deaths totaled almost 5,000 or about 21 percent of all deaths involving powered vehicles.

Among the vulnerable-road-user fatalities, pedestrians suffered the most. More than 6,000 of them died in 2018. For comparison sake, the more than 7,000 pedestrians and pedalcyclists killed by automobiles in 2018 was about 70 percent of the 10,265 people killed in firearm homicides last year. 

Some in the U.S. worry a lot about being killed by someone with a gun, but unless you are the resident of an inner-city plagued by gun violence, you’re far more likely to be killed by someone using a car as the instrument of death.

The 36,560 motor-vehicle-related deaths in 2018 numbered more than three times the firearm homicide deaths.

Warned

University of Chicago economist Sam Peltzman sort of saw this coming 50 years ago. He studied the early government push to get people to wear seatbelts and concluded that “regulation has not decreased highway deaths.

“Time series (but not cross-section) data imply some saving of auto occupants lives at the expense of more pedestrian deaths and more nonfatal accidents, a pattern consistent with optimal driver response to regulation.”

In other words, the overall death toll didn’t decline; it just rearranged. Deaths for passengers in vehicles went down, but deaths for vulnerable road users went up.

That appears to have been a continuing trend, except for an even bigger drop in motor-vehicle passenger deaths because of better car design and crash-cushioning airbags – advancements Peltzman did not see coming.

Neither did he anticipate the mobile phone, which allowed drivers to chat, or its newer derivative, the “smartphone” which allows drivers to text or surf the internet or play games or do something other than pay attention to their driving.

The number of distracted drivers on American roads these days is big enough to have become a topic of much interest and considerable study. The studies are all over the place. Washington state concluded that less than 10 percent of drivers there were driving distracted last year. Minnesota reported almost 30 percent driving distracted there in 2015. 

Researchers who conducted a national Distracted Driving Survey in 2015 the next year published a study at Preventative Medicine Reports that said “nearly 60 percent of respondents reported a cell phone reading or writing activity within the prior 30 days, with reading texts (48 percent), writing texts (33 percent) and viewing maps (43 percent) most frequently reported.”

Those who admitted to regularly being distracted by their phone were “four times as likely to have had a crash than” those rarely distracted, the authors of the study wrote.

Nearly all studies have found young drivers more easily distracted by phones than older drivers. Whether they will grow out of the behavior is unknown.

None of this bodes particularly well for vulnerable road users, which has caught the attention of some in the cycling community.

“….The knee-jerk reaction is to pin the blame on “distracted driving” — a euphemism otherwise better known as a selfish asshole paying more attention to something on their phone instead of, you know, driving. I don’t have objective data to prove that assertion, of course, but I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of people reading this have more than enough firsthand anecdotal evidence to support that hypothesis,” wrote James Huang at the website Cycling Tips.

“The question, however, is what we do about it.

“I’m all for stacking the odds in your favor as much as possible, but the answer isn’t more blinky lights, or higher-resolution front- and rear-facing cameras, or everyone draping themselves in high-viz clothing – just like how the very US-centric problem of school shootings won’t be solved by outfitting our kids with bulletproof backpacks. Nor does our salvation lie in pie-in-the-sky vehicle-to-cyclist communication and warning systems, or autonomous cars that will supposedly drive themselves better than humans can (well, maybe, but that very much remains to be seen).

The real culprits

“None of those address the core issue: that drivers just aren’t paying attention to their primary job when they’re behind the wheel,” Huang wrote.

A lot of people reading this – if they are honest – will be forced to admit that at some point in recent weeks they weren’t paying full attention to their primary job when behind the wheel.

Huang admitted he had no solution to this problem, although he did offer a few ideas. It’s not an easy problem. Some people may be so addicted to their phones they cannot put them down.

Cell phone or smartphone addiction is not at this time as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), but psychiatrists and psychologists are beginning to talk about whether it should be.

“The range of smartphone functions — including Internet use, online gaming, digital cameras, Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation, and interactive applications such as Pokémon GO and Fitbit® — present an immediate distraction that can take the user’s attention away from real-time events, including school and work, social activities, and driving,” writes Linda Peckel at Psychiatry Advisor.

“Although the concept of smartphone addiction is increasingly becoming accepted, the definitions vary. ( Gutiérrez) De-Sola and colleagues described features of craving, ‘an unstoppable and uncontrollable desire that can lead to use (a drug, a technology), despite its negative and detrimental effects.’ They cited the positive signs of smartphone addiction as urgency, abstinence, dependency, difficulty of control, increased use and the need to stay connected, with prominent negative signs of irritability, restlessness, stress, and mood changes associated with inaccessibility to the smartphone.”

Huang suggested that maybe if cars were made more difficult to drive, as they were in the past, people might be forced to pay more attention to their driving. No matter whether that idea is good or bad, it won’t sell in a country where too many people “inside” motor vehicles already die each year.

Nobody is going to buy the idea of killing more motor-vehicle occupants to save vulnerable road users in the U.S. because this is a country of drivers. Most of the vulnerable road users themselves are regular drivers.

Some of them are even more regular drivers than in the past because they fear other drivers. A startling number of people in Alaska’s largest city drive their bikes to Anchorage’s Kincaid or Hillside parks so they can then ride those bikes.

The irony there is only heightened by the fact many of the same people are concerned about manmade carbon dioxide and the role it plays in climate change. But clearly, person safety, or convenience, trumps global warming.

So what to do? Live with it and die with it? Build a better system of bike and pedestrian pathways to reduce interactions between human-powered transportation and motor-powered transportation?

Getting more people moving on foot or on bikes decreases traffic congestion and promotes good health that could help save the country a fortune in health care costs, but drivers  – who are the vast majority of U.S. road users – think of any dollar spent on anything other than road improvements a loss to them.

Ideally, everyone could simply “Share the Road” as the signs around Anchorage say, but the data indicates that sharing simply means the unarmored players lose.

Another pedestrian died in Anchorage on Monday.

“The preliminary investigation found that the adult male driver of (a) pickup was traveling eastbound on Fourth Avenue when he struck an adult female pedestrian crossing the street at Fourth Avenue and Karluk Street,” the Anchorage Police Department reported. “The female victim was in a crosswalk and had nearly completed crossing before she was struck. She was pronounced deceased at the scene.

“Impairment (of the driver) is not believed to be a factor, however poor visibility is believed to be a factor. There have been no arrests.”

“Poor visibility” would suggest a driver should slow down to be able to stop if something appears in the roadway, but when driving around in a fully protected modern motor vehicle, who thinks about slowing down simply because of the weather?

Our technology has come to sometimes own us more than we own it, and that modern reality appears to be killing people.

16 replies »

  1. As an ex 20 year veteran truck driver I have seen dang near everything out there. I used to love driving truck, then something happened, I started taking deep breaths and cringing before pulling out onto the road to join the masses out on the roadways, which is the main reason why I stepped away from driving. A mass amount of rude dangerous drivers started populated the roadways.

    A lot of people say it’s the new generation, however I disagree, all age groups are guilty, even grandma is out there speeding and running you over. It’s almost like a sickness that has taken over out there. Time is time and will move at the same rate no matter what, however the people these days are on some kind of quest to go through life at a high rate of speed, and not enjoy one bit of it.

    I have seen lots of cell phone distractions, but it’s not just that, there’s an attitude out there that solid lines, speed limits, and other laws mean nothing, and if you want to make them really mad, just go the speed limit, and they will either create a new lane on the shoulder for passing or decide someone will yield in a head on situation, all the while using adult sign language. BTW, don’t bet your life on that yielding part, because no one yields anymore, and merging is a lost art.

    I won’t even get started on the driving too fast for the conditions I’ve seen, except to say what my dad always told me. “ It doesn’t matter how fast you can drive on it, what matters is how fast you can stop on it.”

    Pedestrians and bicyclists….When I was originally taught to drive back at the age of 15 years old, we were always informed most the time pedestrians had the right of way, if not the right of way, you at least watched out for them because they are unprotected, and people die.

    I have also found myself walking through store parking lots always aware that it is a safe bet that most of the people driving the vehicles will never stop or slow down for me. It can be pouring down rain, or 60 below out, and the person sitting in their nice dry warm vehicle will more than likely not yield, unless they find themselves at a store front with stop signs in front of it, and that’s still not a guarantee they might not mow you down. I am not sure if this is more of a courtesy observation, but I know I don’t take courtesy for granted anymore, or bet my life on it.

    • too much truth here. we’re coming on the crash season on Anchorage Hillside roads because lots of drivers can’t seem to grasp that gravitate has a startling, magnifying effect on deceleration on ice-slick roads.

      i cringe every time i see a driver accelerating around the curve at the top of the Rabbit Creek Road hill and get pissed off every time someone drives up my ass there because i’m slowing down before i go around that corner and hit the drop which is quite regularly plugged with wrecks.

      courtesy, by the way, is on life support in Alaska, but i have been in cities Outside where it appears healthier.

  2. I was doing a lookup on “West High school student hit in crosswalk” and was simply taken aback with the number of hits that had nothing to do with Anchorage! But Sven (https://www.ktva.com/story/41230424/principal-says-student-hit-by-car-is-a-reminder-to-drivers-to-be-extra-careful) may be unawares of the position of the MOA, as enunciated by the Anchorage Traffic Engineer Stephanie Mormilo: “In reading those two sections [AMC 09.20.020], I interpret this to mean that once a pedestrian has entered the roadway, a driver must yield. However, it does not state that a driver must yield to allow a pedestrian to enter the roadway. ” In other words, a six year old walking to school must first step into the street in order for a motor vehicle to stop. In the words of one legislator, “I think we have a problem”, but DOT and MOA believe all is well (apparently they don’t really care if bicyclists or pedestrians get run over…)

  3. Did not stop in time. 19 pedestrians and cyclists will die today and every day in car-pedestrian/cyclist crashes mostly because of the flaws and inefficiencies of the right foot braking method which we are all forced to use when braking an electric or automatic vehicle, (poor reaction time and stopping distance – If this driver could have applied the brakes ¾ of a second sooner and stopped 40 – 60 feet shorter, would there have been a crash?) There is no scientific justification for the right foot braking method other than ’that’s the way it’s always been taught’! NHTSA and GHSA studied this issue and concluded that female drivers have the biggest problem with this braking method (and male drivers if they would admit it). But instead of continuing to blame female drivers why are they not looking for a solution by testing this braking method against the much safer, easier to learn and retain with age, Left Foot Braking Method? Perhaps ME TOO is not the only victim of a male systemic belief. Note: Simply using your left foot to brake is NOT, repeat NOT the Left Foot Braking Method.

    • As most people already know, the standard QWERTY keyboard layout was made to slow down early typists. The movements of the fingers to the keys was purposely selected to be as slow & inefficient as possible. That’s because early mechanical typewriters were mechanically slow, and you’d jam the keys if you typed too fast.

      The punch line of course, is that in nothing-flat after manufacturers rolled out QWERTY, typists could go as fast as they wanted, as fast as on the previous ‘sensible’ keyboard layout. To this day, there is a DVORAK alternative layout, designed to be efficient & fast. Dvorak typists cannot generally outperform ‘handicapped’ QWERTY typists, other than that they might practice more.

      That’s the basic ‘object-lesson’ with all kinds of automobile control-pedal arguments.

      A big part of Reaction Time is not the movement of the foot etc, but delays within the eye-brain-vision system itself. That and the real biggie of course, ‘paying attention’.

      Even robotic & self-driving systems have internal ‘processing delays’. Flat-out, self-driving does not improve things so much on account of being faster & quicker (which they can be) … no, the big AI autopilot improvement is that its attention never wanders, it never blinks and never chats on the cellphone!

  4. How about the disconnected pedestrians looking down at their phone and texting/talking, ear buds in but are oblivious to the outside world? Don’t get me started on the bicyclists that choose to listen to whatever with their bluetooth headphones and/or running stop signs/red lights or biking against motorized traffic. See one of these examples every day….. It’s a two way street. Do as I say, not as I do.

    • actually, it’s not a two-way street. it’s tanks versus infantry. distracted pedestrians and cyclists risk paying the ultimate price for stupidity. distracted drivers only risk putting a dent in their car and killing someone, a fact which doesn’t seem to alter their behavior a bit.

      as someone who both drives and cycles, i can assure you that for every bicyclist i see violating traffic laws (including things as minor as one of those “rolling stops” at a stop sign on the Lake Otis bike trail/path), i see at least 10 drivers violating traffic laws in especially dangerous ways speeding through red lights, swerving around the road because they’re trying to text on their smartphone, yacking on their phone while putting on makeup in the mirror like the woman who forced me off a suburban street with her Subaru.

      but don’t believe me. get on a bike, ride, and look. there’s a whole lot of bad driving going on. i have no doubt that some of the road users killed by drivers put themselves in harms way, but way too many are nothing but innocent victims of people who think like you do, people who think there’s some kind of equivalency here, people who rationalize these deaths of innocents with the idea that they were all taking dangerous risks and thus deserved to die.

  5. The main cause of motor vehicle accidents is Alcohol consumption and ingestion of other drugs that cause impairment to the driver.
    “…How big is the problem?
    In 2016, 10,497 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, accounting for 28% of all traffic-related deaths in the United States.
    Of the 1,233 traffic deaths among children ages 0 to 14 years in 2016, 214 (17%) involved an alcohol-impaired driver.
    In 2016, more than 1 million drivers were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics.
    That’s one percent of the 111 million self-reported episodes of alcohol-impaired driving among U.S. adults each year.
    Drugs other than alcohol (legal and illegal) are involved in about 16% of motor vehicle crashes.”

    https://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/impaired_driving/impaired-drv_factsheet.html

    • Steve, by comparison and among 350 million people the issues you describe are so miniscule.
      Heart disease
      Number of deaths per year: 635,260
      Cancer
      Number of deaths per year: 598,038
      Accidents (unintentional injuries)
      Number of deaths per year: 161,374
      Firearm (2017)
      Number of death per year (2017): 10,982
      Bike
      Number of deaths per year (2017): 777

      • Bryan,
        Good point…As Alcohol consumption and impairment plays a factor in many of those death statistics you listed as well, especially firearm accidents and traumatic accidents in general.
        Alcohol is also a factor in many pedestrian deaths.
        “Pedestrian deaths account for about 14 percent of all traffic deaths in the United States…
        Alcohol is a factor in 49 percent of pedestrian accident deaths.
        Of pedestrian deaths involving alcohol, it’s the driver that’s drunk two-thirds of the time. However, in one-third of the cases, it’s the pedestrian that’s drunk.”

        https://www.askadamskutner.com/pedestrian-accident/walking-drunk-pedestrian-accidents/

    • Steve,

      On the Bicycle Universe website:

      Cell Phones: More Dangerous Than Driving Drunk

      Actually there’s a lot of this kind of material out there – that phones and distractions are right up there with DUI.

      And that’s before we consider that, yes, if a rider is out building mileage between midnight and 3 am (esp. Fri-Sat), sure, there is an enhanced exposure to drunks. But if in fact the rider is commuting at the usual times, or playing hooky on a nice afternoon, the main hazard might not be drunks.

  6. Driver-behavior on my Scenic Highway has become so sedate, mild-mannered & careful, that I now almost always see the occasional Highway Patrol vehicle just driving along with the traffic. There is little point in parking to catch speeders going by … they’re too rare.

    Notice, this is a Scenic Highway. You have to drive this puppy. In-town, it may be a different thing. I do see the occasional morning-commuter fussing with their hair or morning toilet, in the mirror … very rarely do I see drivers chatting on the phone … but I do see them pulled over & yakking rather often. Could be in town this is different … but the main one-way loop I drive for shopping seems ok (although this main loop has a bike-lane that makes it tight & a challenge to drive … so could be the same thing on this particular route as out on our upgraded goat-path).

    I have a blast riding where usage levels are low. I’ve visited in the Mother Lode country (beautiful!) up behind Sacramento, and in neighborhoods around Portland (I’m west of Seattle in rural Olympic Peninsula) … and I’ve seen fairly, moderately high bicycle turn-out situations where the better riders were clearly not having a good time, unable to get around slower riders like they wanted. And many stopping, taking pictures, playing … and blocking bike-traffic.

    I made a note to Self: don’t try to ride around here, on a nice day, it doesn’t look fun. Same thing happens in some busy commutes. Not out here in the sticks, but Seattle & Portland areas, they get a (rare) nice day, everybody tries to turn into cycling-mavens for the pretty weather; it makes the News, and the good ones are frustrated.

    It’s possible our economy around here has gotten so lean, for so long, that we just don’t have the younger element of society like we should … they have to leave. Maybe; I don’t hear about it, and seems I would, but maybe that’s it.

  7. Easily a quarter to a third or more of the drivers I see have a phone to their ear or in front of their face. Many newer and even not so new upscale cars come with Bluetooth enabled hands free phone systems. An aftermarket hands free with voice dialers are only $100 or so, though you can spend more. Most will pair with at least two phones, some more. The only time I’ve ever locked up ABS brakes on dry pavement was when a little Neon ran the light in front of me at the McNugget intersection in Juneau. I was on Egan Drive doing 55 or more, probably more, and I got a very, very close view of four young girls in that tiny car all on their phones, probably talking to each other. A Chrysler 300M has very good brakes or some or all of those girls would be dead.

    • Yeah, that’s scary Art. Even with a dashcam which I’m looking to install, I don’t need the experience of someone committing Darwinian Enhancement under my truck.

      Something about that phone that really makes everything so much better, for these folks.

      Some dashcams are designed to like practically disappear, be invisible … but others are these big gaudy things. At first I scratched my head at the showy ones, but now I’m thinking maybe that’s for people to see in their rearview mirror … especially the dang dawdlers … not terrible hereabouts, but aggravating.

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