Why Isn't Traffic Reduction a Top Public Health Concern?

Earlier this week, Ken Archer at Greater Greater Washington posted this revealing graphic showing the relationship between the amount of driving we do in the United States and the death toll on our roads. Even as conventional traffic safety techniques have made driving less deadly, the rise in miles driven knocked back those improvements. It wasn’t until our collective mileage flattened out that safety gains could be fully realized. Thousands of lives were saved when the growth in driving came to a halt.

So it should seem obvious that policy discussions of the risk posed by traffic should prioritize measures to reduce driving and encourage travel by other means, but, as Archer notes, public health authorities tend not to attack the problem that way:

Traffic is the leading cause of death among children worldwide and the leading cause
of death among 1-34 year olds in the United States. So, why isn’t
traffic considered the top threat to public health by the CDC, WHO and
federal, state and local governments?

don’t officials approach traffic reduction with the same urgency that
they approach, say, tobacco or malnutrition? The answer can be found in
the CDC’s publications on injury prevention…

The CDC, NIH and other agencies focus on traffic safety as the preventable cause of death, not traffic itself. WHO’s recommendations for addressing traffic fatalities are "speed, alcohol, seat-belts and child restraints, helmets, and visibility."
[Editor’s note: The WHO and CDC have also issued reports recommending traffic reduction strategies.] The flaw in this exclusive focus on traffic safety is that increased
safety only matters when vehicle miles traveled (VMT) are kept static
or reduced. Instead, safety improvements that reduce fatalities per VMT
have been offset by rising VMT…

Are we serious about public health? The sooner we start demanding
honesty about the causes of the top killer of children here and abroad
the better, because during the 2 minutes you spent reading this
article, another child died in a traffic collision.

One agency that has focused attention on traffic as a public safety threat, Archer notes, is the New York City Department of Health, which recently released a report indicating that the city’s robust transit system is a big reason why traffic-related child deaths are relatively low — one-third the national average.

Elsewhere on the Network: Cap’n Transit on transit funding kludges. (What’s a kludge? You’ll just have to follow the link.) M-Bike notes another milestone for Michigan’s complete streets bill. And Straight Outta Suburbia critiques Los Angeles’s minimum parking requirements.

  • Jim

    It would be helpful to define VMT upfront, rather than finding its meaning towards the end of the article.

  • Feel free one and all to join me at the August 3rd SFMTA Board meeting as I plan to scold the SFMTA on their negligence in regards to improving pedestrian safety in downtown San Francisco during Public Comment. In fact, the SFMTA made pedestrian conditions worse recently in my Rincon Hill neighborhood by adding a second left turn lane on Folsom Street at Main Street. They get grants to improve pedestrian safety, but their actions decrease pedestrian safety – huh?!?

  • Thanks! I guess in a national, or worldwide, audience, not everyone knows what a kludge is!

  • “Even as conventional traffic safety techniques have made driving less deadly.”

    Research by Dr. John Adams (‘Risk in a Hypermobile World’) has thoroughly debunked this myth. Conventional “safety” technologies like ABS, air-bags, or even seat-belts have had no measurable impact on traffic fatalities. In fact, these technologies give a false sense of security, an encourage more aggressive driver behavior (i.e. “Risk Compensation”).

    Road “safety” improvements due not reduce fatalities either. They do the opposite: increasing the volume and speed of cars on the roadway.

  • Jim

    Drunk Engineer-

    John Adam’s research, which does not in any way take into account steady increases in vehicle miles traveled, assumes something crucial- that people are, rational beings. Which they are not.

    I promise, when I was 17 years old and doing stupid things in my car, I was not thinking that since I was safer becasue of the seat belt, I could go faster. The car was going to go as fast as it could, regardless of the safety equipment it had. The point though, is that due to mandatory seat belt laws, I had ingrained a habit of putting the seat belt on. I was safer, becasue the seat belt was on, regardless of what stupid things I was doing. People will do dangerous things regardless of the safety mechanisms that are there to protect them. Vehicle safety mechanisms do save lives. There is no way around that fact.

    Reducing vehicle miles traveled, altering road design so that it is actually safer instead of faster, and enforcing existing traffic law (through things like automated enforcement) will all make things even safer for all of us, especially the most vulnerable, those who are not in cars at all.


  • Jim, you’re wrong and DE is right. Adams does in fact take the increase in VMT into account. Part of his research shows how the decades-long trend for a reduction in accident deaths per VMT has persisted regardless of safety laws. You wouldn’t be able to tell when speed limit laws and seat belt laws were enacted just by staring at a death rate graph.

    You would, however, be able to tell when higher-quality roads were built, by seeing an uptick in the death rate. The only time in US history when per-VMT death rates remained constant instead of falling was the years following the construction of the Interstates.

    The only way to make sure fewer cars hit pedestrians is to ban either walking or driving. In the UK, pedestrians die in road accidents at one third the rate they did in 1920. The reason isn’t that safety improved; it’s that the increase in the number of cars has led people to walk less and play in the street less. As long as just a few people drive or just a few people walk, cars will hit pedestrians.

  • Has not the total fatality figure declined from something in the low 40K to somewhere in the 30s?

  • Douglas: yes, the total fatality figure in the US dropped in the late 2000s, mostly because the rise in oil prices reduced the amount of driving.

  • Andrew D. Smith

    Driving and walking obviously carry risks and while I can certainly see the benefits in public education campaigns to help people understand those risks accurately, nothing here convinces me that the government should try to reduce deaths by encouraging less driving. Driving less (whether that means staying at home or taking alternative transport) imposes a cost of inconvenience upon people in exchange for the benefit of fewer fatalities. But who are you guys (and who are the bureaucrats in DC) to be directing people to the “right” choice. People can make the best choices for themselves, so long as they understand the costs and benefits properly.


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