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The Death Toll From Cars Is Even Higher Than You Thought

Ten days ago, four-year-old Zain Ali Hussain was killed near Houston when a neighbor backed his pickup truck over him. At least 50 times a week, people back their cars over kids in the U.S. On average, two of those 50 incidents are fatal. But you won’t see them represented in official crash statistics.

Four-year-old Zain Ali Hussain's death, like the deaths of an average of 1,621 people per year, will not be counted in NHTSA's traffic death statistics because he was hit in a driveway, not a public road. Photo: ##http://www.click2houston.com/news/deputies-child-hit-and-killed-by-pickup/25434032##Click2Houston##

Four-year-old Zain Ali Hussain’s death will not be counted in NHTSA’s traffic fatality statistics because he was hit in a driveway, not a public road. Photo: Click2Houston

Every year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issues a grim summation of the death toll on American roads: 33,561 killed in 2012. The year before that: 32,479. The year before that: 32,999. But this statistic leaves out many fatalities caused by cars and drivers. And the victims it undercounts the most are pedestrians and cyclists — and children.

NHTSA does track these other deaths, but it categorizes them differently. The agency recently released its “Not-in-Traffic Surveillance” numbers from 2008 to 2011 [PDF] — which measures injuries and deaths in “nontraffic motor vehicle crashes” off public roadways. The agency explains:

These crashes… are mostly single-vehicle crashes on private roads, two-vehicle crashes in parking facilities, or collisions with pedestrians on driveways. Then there are also noncrash incidents such as a vehicle falling on a person underneath or unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning.

So, add to the 37,261 people killed in traffic in 2008 another 1,605 killed in “nontraffic.” Between 2008 and 2011, there were 6,483 such deaths and 91,000 such injuries. About 39 percent of the people killed in these incidents weren’t in cars.

Children like Zain account for a disproportionate share of “nontraffic” fatalities. (NHTSA put out a separate report [PDF] on children involved in nontraffic crashes.) Between 2008 and 2011, 13 percent of the victims were 4 or younger, while kids that young account for about 3.5 percent of the overall population. Almost half the children who die in these kinds of incidents are killed by drivers backing up over them. Three percent are killed by rollaway vehicles that no one is driving. Of all children injured in “nontraffic” crashes, 60 percent are not in a car at the time.

NHTSA didn’t collect information on these crashes until 2007, and the agency still doesn’t include them in its annual traffic fatality reporting. The National Safety Council does, however, which helps explain why the NSC’s numbers are always higher than NHTSA’s. The NSC also considers a death to be traffic-related if it occurs within 12 months of the crash; NHTSA’s window is only 30 days.

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Why Is America Falling Farther Behind Other Nations on Street Safety?

The United States has fallen behind peer nations in reducing traffic fatalities. Image: International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group

The United States continues to fall farther behind peer nations in reducing traffic fatalities. Image: International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group

Vox, the much-anticipated Ezra Klein/Matt Yglesias/Melissa Bell reporting venture, launched earlier this week to wide fanfare, and one of the first articles explained that “traffic deaths are way, way down” in the United States.

It was exciting to see Vox show an interest in street safety, but writer Susannah Locke missed the mark with her take on the issue.

Locke called a decades-long reduction in traffic deaths to 33,561 in 2012 “a major public health victory.” What we’re talking about here is that only 11 of every 100,000 Americans were killed in traffic that year, which, she rightly points out, is a dramatic improvement compared to the 1970s, when the fatality rate was 27 per 100,000 people.

But compared to our international peers, the United States is still doing a poor job of reducing traffic deaths. Rather than hailing the decline in traffic fatalities in America, we should be asking why we continue to fall behind other countries when it comes to keeping people safe on our streets.

Americans are killed by traffic at an appalling rate compared to residents of peer nations, as shown in a review of dozens of countries by the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group [PDF]. In Japan, the traffic fatality rate is much lower — 4.3 deaths per 100,000 people in 2011. In Germany, the rate is 4.9 per 100,000. In Sweden, 3.4 per 100,000. And in the United Kingdom, just 3.1. If the United States had a comparable street safety record, tens of thousands of lives would be saved each year.

What’s shocking is not only that those countries have much lower rates of traffic deaths — it’s that they’ve also reduced those rates at a much more effective clip than the United States. The streets of our peer countries are becoming safer, faster.

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Rep. Joe Crowley Announces Pedestrian Safety Bill — The Third in Six Months

Rep. Joe Crowley announces his Pedestrian Fatalities Reduction Act this morning in Queens. Photo courtesy of the Office of Rep. Joe Crowley.

Rep. Joe Crowley announces his Pedestrian Fatalities Reduction Act yesterday in Queens. Photo courtesy of the Office of Rep. Joe Crowley.

Rep. Albio Sires has his New Opportunities for Bicycle and Pedestrian Infrastructure Financing Act (HR 3978). Rep. Earl Blumenauer has his Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Act (HR 3494). And now, Rep. Joe Crowley has unveiled his Pedestrian Fatalities Reduction Act.

The New York City Democrat, a supporter of Vision Zero, made the announcement yesterday morning in Queens, which suffers a high rate of pedestrian crashes. He was flanked by street safety advocates and public officials.

States are currently required to submit comprehensive, statewide Strategic Highway Safety Plans to the Federal Highway Administration in order to receive federal highway safety funds. Crowley says the SHSP “is used by state departments of transportation to outline safety needs and determine investment decisions” but that “surprisingly, federal law does not require SHSPs to include statistics on pedestrian injuries and fatalities.”

His bill [PDF] would require states to report on the rate of fatalities and serious injuries among pedestrians and “users of nonmotorized forms of transportation.” If those numbers go up, a state would have to explain in its SHSP how it will address the problem.

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How the Self-Driving Car Could Spell the End of Parking Craters

Look, ma, no hands! A legally blind man tested out Google's self-driving car in 2012. Photo: ##http://byteandchew.com/best-of-2012-8-rise-of-the-self-driven-car/##Byte and Chew##

A legally blind man tested out Google’s self-driving car in 2012. Photo: Byte and Chew

Here’s the rosy scenario of a future where cars drive themselves: Instead of owning cars, people will summon autonomous vehicles, hop in, and head to their destination. With fewer cars to be stored, parking lots and garages will give way to development, eventually bringing down the cost of housing in tight markets through increased supply. Pressure to expand roads will ease, as vehicle-to-vehicle technology allows more cars to use the same road space. Traffic violence will become a thing of the past as vehicles communicate instantly with each other and the world around them.

Then there’s the other scenario: People who can afford it will pay an exorbitant amount for gee-whiz driverless technology, but the new systems will have imperfections and won’t integrate seamlessly with older vehicles. Most cars will still be piloted by humans, so the new tech won’t have much effect on traffic hazards and congestion. The driverless car utopia will remain a Magic Highway fantasy.

Driverless vehicle technology has progressed far enough that we need to start anticipating its potential effects. Google’s autonomous vehicle fleet has driven half a million miles without a crash. But the future is extremely uncertain.

At a Congressional briefing this week, the RAND Corporation’s James Anderson, author of a recent report on the prospects for autonomous vehicles, said he is convinced that while there are advantages and disadvantages to driverless cars, “the societal benefits exceed the costs.”

The best possible scenario involves a fleet of shared driverless cars and the elimination of private vehicle ownership. Cars would be in constant use, so the amount of land reserved for parking could be greatly reduced. Even if driverless car technology comes on the market soon, however, that version of the future may never arrive.

Here’s how RAND and others are gaming out some of the potential effects:

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Talking Headways Podcast: From the Free Market to the Flea Market

You think the conflict between Uber and regular taxi drivers — and cities like Seattle — is bad? Check out how new taxi apps in China are upending the transportation system and central economic planning. Meanwhile, in Houston, a flea market has brought revitalization without gentrification to a depressed area near the airport, and now an urban design firm is bringing in pop-up infrastructure like mobile libraries and grocery stores, along with sidewalks and bikeways. And Californians are proving that the culture shift away from the automobile and toward other modes of transportation is happening — maybe even faster than we’d thought.

And for a real downer, check out U.S. DOT’s big idea about how to hold states accountable for better safety outcomes — by not holding them accountable at all.

Enjoy this week’s podcast, subscribe on iTunes, follow the RSS feed, and talk at us in the comments.

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Dateline Nashville: Students Spotted Walking to School — Outside!

Today in what’s wrong with everything: The Nashville news media is apparently aghast that students at a local high school had to take a walk.

According to WKRN, on the way back from a field trip around 100 students from the Nashville School of the Arts were dropped off about eight-tenths of a mile from school. The students, the station reports, were forced to endure 15 minutes of walking after bus drivers left them at a McDonald’s to attend to other routes.

“As the buses left,” says anchor Bob Mueller, barely concealing his incredulity, “the only way to get those students back to school was to walk.”

WKRN’s Nick Caloway did the same walk himself to double-check the school district’s half-mile estimate of the journey, which school officials said was within the official “walk zone.” Caloway does a pretty good job detailing road conditions that might make what should be a routine activity dangerous. He makes a point of saying the road was “busy” and that one section of sidewalk was closed, though these details are seemingly offered only to strengthen the argument that the students should not have been walking.

How sad that an activity that was commonplace for generations is now completely foreign to much of the U.S. Given the tone of the coverage you’d think these kids flew back from their field trip by flapping their arms.

As for the students, one described the experience as “not fun.”

“It was sunny, it was windy,” she said.

(Hat tip to Lenore Skenazy at Free Range Kids.)

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FHWA Proposes to Let States Fail Their Own Safety Goals With Impunity

This story has been updated to reflect comments and clarifications from the FHWA.

Secretary Anthony Foxx has made clear that safety — and specifically, safety for bicyclists and pedestrians — is a priority of his administration. If that’s true, his administration sure has a funny way of showing it.

More of this happening on your state's roadways? Bring it! FHWA doesn't mind. Photo: ##http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2012/02/two_drivers_sent_to_area_hospi.html##Post-Standard##

More of this happening on your state’s roadways? Bring it! FHWA doesn’t mind. Photo: Post-Standard

The Federal Highway Administration’s proposal on safety performance measures allows states to fail to meet half their own safety targets without consequences. And it gives the seal of approval to worsening safety performance as long as people in that state are driving more.

The MAP-21 transportation bill was cheered for instituting performance measures, but it left it the details up to U.S. DOT. The first of three Notices of Proposed Rulemakings — U.S. DOT’s proposals for how to set up this system of accountability — was released earlier this week. This one is on safety; the next two will be on 1) infrastructure condition and 2) congestion and system performance. These rulemakings are slipping behind schedule but were always expected to be implemented well after MAP-21 expires September 30.

People on foot and on bikes “left out”

First, bike and pedestrian advocates are bitterly disappointed that their demand for a separate performance measure on vulnerable road users was not included. “Once again, bicyclists have been left out,” said Bike League President Andy Clarke in a blog post Tuesday. “We know that without a specific target to focus the attention of state DOTs and USDOT on reducing bicyclist and pedestrian deaths within the overall number — we get lost in the shuffle.”

DOT is requesting comments on how a performance measure for bicyclists and pedestrians might be possible, but also makes clear it’s unlikely to implement one. The agency says that “separating specific types of fatalities… leads to numbers too statistically small to provide sufficient validity for developing targets.”

We’ve asked FHWA for comment for this story. We’ll update when we hear back.

“This proposal is a solid first step in ensuring states use a data-driven approach to improve safety for everyone who uses the road,” said a spokesperson for FHWA. “We look forward to receiving comments and developing a new rule that will reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries on all public roads.”

UPDATE: In a March 19 webinar, an FHWA official said that this month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Governors Highway Safety Association negotiated the possibility of a bicycle fatality performance measure as one of the new measures, “and that will begin, hopefully, in FY2015.”

50 percent failure = A for effort

The only four performance measures FHWA is requiring are: 1) number of fatalities, 2) rate of fatalities, 3) number of serious injuries, and 4) rate of serious injuries. States can choose to add separate targets for urbanized and non-urbanized areas.

Things go from bad to worse in Section 490.211: “Determining Whether a State DOT Has Made Significant Progress Toward Achieving Performance Targets.” Here, it becomes clear that FHWA intends to let states skirt accountability entirely.

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Does It Take a Crime This Egregious to Hold Drivers Accountable?

A driver trying to avoid a police check for drunk driving killed at least two people last night in Austin's SXSW festival. Photo: ##http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/13/us/texas-sxsw-crash/##CNN##

A driver trying to avoid a police check for drunk driving killed at least two people last night in Austin’s SXSW festival. Photo: CNN

A lively night out at one of the year’s most popular festivals turned to carnage last night as a driver rammed through barricades into a pedestrian-only zone at the South By Southwest music-and-film festival in Austin.

In an attempt to avoid a drunk-driving check by a police officer, the driver — allegedly driving a stolen car — killed two people and injured 23 others. Two are in critical condition and three are in serious condition. The driver — identified by the Austin American-Statesman as 21-year-old Rashad Charjuan Owens of Killeen, Texas — tried to get away on foot after the car crashed.

It’s a grim reminder of how dangerous automobiles can be. People tend not to think of their cars  — mundane tools of everyday life — as deadly weapons when they’re driving. But motorists kill 92 people a day in the United States. Fifteen of them are struck while walking or riding a bicycle.

Owens faces two counts of capital murder and 23 counts of aggravated assault with a vehicle for the mayhem he caused last night. Unfortunately, it takes an event this over-the-top to get law enforcement to prosecute drivers who kill. Last fall, a cabbie who drove up onto a sidewalk in Midtown Manhattan, severing a tourist’s leg, got off without even a citation. The driver — a repeat offender — only lost his taxi license for six weeks and now he’s free to drive the streets again.

Of the two people killed last night in Austin, one was a Dutch man riding a bicycle. In his home country, drivers are far more likely to face consequences for injuries and deaths they cause with their cars.

The Netherlands applies a concept called “strict liability” to motorists who hurt pedestrians or cyclists. In their civil courts, the operator of the larger vehicle is presumed to be liable.

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Sec. Foxx: Bicycle Infrastructure Can Be a “Ladder of Opportunity”

Sec. Foxx told hundreds gathered for the Bike Summit that he won't stand still and allow bike and pedestrian injuries and fatalities to increase. Photo: Brian Palmer, via the ##http://www.bikeleague.org/content/sec-foxx-shares-support-bikes##Bike League##

Sec. Foxx told hundreds gathered for the Bike Summit that he won’t stand still and allow bike and pedestrian injuries and fatalities to increase. Photo: Brian Palmer, via the Bike League

This morning, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s blog post is all about bicycling. He opens by touting the complete streets policy he helped implement in Charlotte (it passed before he was mayor) and the city’s bike-share system — the largest in the Southeast.

His post follows on his speech yesterday to the National Bike Summit, which began with this frank admission: “I’ve got big shoes to fill.”

Foxx’s predecessor, Ray LaHood, became the darling of the bike movement when he stood on a table at the 2010 Summit and affirmed his commitment to safe cycling, later declaring “the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.”

Foxx’s speech was less fiery but showed his commitment to the issue. He mentioned that he himself had been the victim of a crash while jogging in Charlotte, and while he wasn’t hurt, he’s aware how lucky he was that it didn’t turn out differently.

“All across our country, every day, there are accidents and injuries — and unfortunately sometimes even fatalities — that occur among the bicycle and pedestrian communities,” Foxx told the Summit audience. “I didn’t tolerate it as a mayor. And as U.S. secretary of transportation we certainly won’t stand still and allow this crisis to slowly build up over time.”

“Our roads should be safe,” he went on. “They should be easy places to travel no matter how we are traveling on them.”

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Families of NYC Traffic Violence Victims Band Together for Safer Streets

On Sunday, New Yorkers who’ve lost loved ones to traffic violence gathered on the steps of City Hall in Lower Manhattan to launch Families for Safe Streets, a new initiative advocating for street designs and traffic enforcement that will save lives. In this moving Streetfilm, members of Families for Safe Streets talk about their goals and why they’re speaking out.

The speakers included Amy Cohen and Gary Eckstein, whose son Sammy was killed on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn; Amy Tam and Hsi-Pei Liao, whose daughter Allison was killed in a Queens crosswalk; Judith Kottick, whose daughter Ella Kottick Bandes was killed while crossing the street in Brooklyn; Mary Beth Kelly, whose husband Dr. Carl Henry Nacht was killed while riding his bicycle on the west side of Manhattan; Greg Thompson, whose sister Renee was killed by a turning truck driver on the Upper East Side; Dana Lerner, whose son Cooper Stock was killed by a taxi driver who failed to yield to Cooper and his father while they were in a crosswalk; and Dave Sheppard, whose fiancée Sonya Powell was killed crossing the street by an unlicensed, hit-and-run driver in the Bronx.

Their message on Sunday was about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan to eliminate traffic deaths in New York. Families for Safe Streets supports the multi-pronged action plan de Blasio unveiled last week, while calling on City Hall to make firmer commitments with concrete benchmarks for reducing traffic violence.

The formation of a survivors group dedicated to reducing dangerous driving of all kinds is also a new development in New York, and perhaps a national precedent. While organizations like MADD have specifically countered drunk driving, the United States has not had an equivalent to the UK’s Road Peace, a traffic violence survivors group formed in 1992 that has become a national voice for overall street safety. Perhaps not coincidentally, since 1990, traffic deaths in Great Britain have dropped by two-thirds, while traffic deaths in the U.S. have fallen by only a quarter.

By turning their grief into activism, Families for Safe Streets is doing something new and powerful. And they are extending an outstretched hand to other victims’ families in New York. “There are thousands of other survivors,” Amy Cohen said at Sunday’s event. “We invite them to join us.”

Stephen Miller contributed reporting to this post.