04 December 2020

The Guardian: “Collision course: why are cars killing more and more pedestrians?”

Here is what the frustrated safety experts will tell you: Americans are driving more than ever, more than residents of any other country. More of them than ever are living in cities and out in urban sprawl; a growing number of pedestrian fatalities occur on the fringes of cities, where high-volume, high-speed roads exist in close proximity to the places where people live, work, and shop. Speed limits have increased across the country over the past 20 years, despite robust evidence that even slight increases in speed dramatically increase the likelihood of killing pedestrians (car passengers, too – but the increase is not as steep, thanks to improvements in the design of car frames, airbags and seatbelts). American road engineers tend to assume people will speed, and so design roads to accommodate speeding; this, in turn, facilitates more speeding, which soon enough makes higher speed limits feel reasonable. And more Americans than ever are zipping around in SUVs and pickup trucks, which, thanks to their height, weight and shape are between two and three times more likely to kill people they hit.

There is simply a very good business reason for car companies to sell people a future where everything is better, especially when the way to get there is by purchasing a lot of cars, says Peter Norton, perhaps the most prominent historian of how Americans think about traffic safety. As Norton pointed out, car manufacturers have long made a practice of stoking consumer dissatisfaction, and yoking it to utopian visions of the future in which cars of the future solve problems created by cars of the present. I don’t think there’s any chance that autonomous vehicles will deliver us a safe future, and I don’t necessarily think the companies think so either. I think they think we’ll buy a lot of stuff. The safe future will recede before our eyes like a desert mirage.

Peter C Baker

I have linked to this article before, after Tesla launched the Cybertruck, the ultimate symbol of car-centric culture to the detriment of pedestrians – and on some level of the American ‘Cult of Selfishness’ that has damaged the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

A 1950s illustration depicting a utopian world of driverless cars
A 1950s illustration depicting a utopian world of driverless cars. Photograph: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

It is a good reminder that some structural issues will not be fixed by AI and the promise of self-driving cars, constantly receding into a more distant future, nor by private companies, who by their nature are compelled to generate profits and to sell their own solutions, not to design what is best for society overall. The proper answer to ‘too many cars on the road’ is not to improve cars (by turning them electric or making them more ‘intelligent’), which only generates more demand for cars, but to promote public transportation and more environmentally-friendly freight infrastructure.

In the US, meanwhile, it remains the case that pedestrian advocates have failed to engineer the cultural process that transforms a scattered mass of dead and injured bodies into a widely recognised problem. They have not come close. When two Boeing 737s went down, killing 346 people, it triggered multiple government investigations. Crash reconstruction and analysis experts showed up. Corporate spokespeople apologised, began handing out cheques to victims’ families and swore to do better. Journalists searched for explanations. But cars kill a 737’s worth of American pedestrians every couple of weeks. Internationally, it is more than three 737s per day. And the news cycle barely stutters.

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