What Gun Violence and Traffic Violence Have in Common

Traffic deaths vs. gun deaths in the U.S. Graph: Violence Policy Center via Transport Providence
Traffic deaths and gun deaths in the U.S. Graph: Violence Policy Center via Transport Providence

The horrific mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando has prompted some soul-searching about America’s ability to take significant steps to curb gun violence. Congress did nothing to control guns after dozens of young kids were massacred at Sandy Hook. Will the loss of 49 innocent lives finally lead officials to take action?

The problem of gun violence has recently inspired a number of analogies to traffic fatalities, which also claim tens of thousands of lives in America each year. President Obama said at a recent forum that gun violence can be systematically reduced through public policy, citing the reduction in traffic deaths as proof that it can be done. It’s true that traffic deaths have declined significantly in the last few decades (though they spiked upward in 2015), but what the president didn’t mention is that, like gun deaths, America’s traffic fatality rate remains sky-high compared to peer nations.

James Kennedy at Network blog Transport Providence says both gun deaths and traffic deaths require political action:

More Americans are killed each year by cars than by guns (though that number is merging, and guns may come out on top soon). For some on the right, this is a statistic that undermines the seriousness of the gun problem in this country, but it’s really more a statistic that speaks to how bad the car problem is. So, in America, we have two tools that we haven’t figured the institutions out for: cars and guns. Other countries have done very admirably with these.

Road deaths per 100,000 people.
 Netherlands 3.4
 United States 10.6

America had a better [traffic] safety record than the Netherlands in the 1970s, because Dutch people were being killed left and right on roads that had been made more car-friendly and less bike-friendly. The Dutch woke up to their problem, and although American car safety has improved, Dutch safety has improved much faster. You are now many times more likely to be killed or injured on a bike in the United States, despite the fact that a paltry number of people actually ride bikes for any purpose in the United States (the percentage of commuters hovers around 1% in the U.S.; versus more than 30% of all trips in the Netherlands, and around 50-60% of trips taken in Dutch cities).

In the U.S., we can’t figure out how to deal with cars, or with guns.

The only way to make progress on both problems, writes Kennedy, is to enact reforms at the institutional level:

The Intercept wrote an interesting piece on how false positives in the FBI Terror Watch List can negatively impact people. Do we want to gradually police people’s beliefs, trying to predict who is a criminal beforehand? Or should we just make it harder to carry out violence crimes in the instance that someone should decide to do so? This is the list we talk about using to govern who can and cannot have assault weapons. I’ve got a better plan: no one can have assault weapons. There you go! Instead of setting ourselves up to make complex, impossible decisions about who is or is not likely to someday be a criminal, we could just make it so that people who want to be criminal find it harder to commit crimes. Just like instead of trying to personally convince everyone that buses are way cool (TM) and that bikes are the way to go (copyright) we could build some bike lanes and get our land use and parking policies aligned, and get the bus routes to make sense.

Fix the tools, fix the institutions that revolve around the tools, and you fix the problem. You can’t change human nature, but you can fit our institutions to that nature.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Mobilizing the Region looks at how cheap oil is undermining efforts to reduce carbon emissions from transportation. Itinerant Urbanist profiles a very unsuccessful Park-and-Ride in Providence as a cautionary tale. And Los Alamos Bikes takes the Albuquerque Journal to task for its myopic coverage of New Mexico’s terrible pedestrian safety record.

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