Archive for March, 2009

The Law, It’s a Funny Thing

Following up on a story I mentioned a while back, a driver in DeKalb County, Georgia, who struck and killed a child at a crosswalk in front of a school, despite a crossing guard and a line of stopped cars, has been charged with “misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.” My first question is: Do the words misdemeanor and manslaughter appear anywhere else together save the curious field of traffic law?

The second is a bit from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution story:

“Misdemeanors can be punished by up to one year in jail. State law makes vehicular homicide a misdemeanor except in certain cases such as drunken driving or ignoring a stop sign on a stopped school bus.”

Well, first, if a driver claims to not see the stop sign on a stopped school bus, is that the same as ignoring it? Second, is there any reason for a driver to less cautious at a cross-walk in front of a school than around a school-bus dispensing children? If the law makes legal protections for children being dropped off from a bus, why wouldn’t it do the same when they are in a protected crosswalk, under the care of a crossing guard?

(Thanks Lucas)

Posted on Tuesday, March 31st, 2009 at 6:58 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Future Eventually Arrives

Traffic gets up a great write-up over at Popular Mechanics, via Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds. Here’s an excerpt:

The safety-through-danger approach extends to cars. Modern cars are quiet, powerful and capable of astonishing grip in curves, even on wet pavement. That’s swell, of course, until you suddenly lose traction at 75 mph. The sense of confidence bred by all this capability makes us feel safe, which causes us to drive faster than we probably should. We don’t want to make cars with poor response, but perhaps we could design cues—steering-wheel vibration devices, as in video games?—that make us feel less safe at speed and encourage more care. Designers could make cars feel faster at lower speeds, instead of slower at higher speeds. Done right, this might even make driving more fun. In college I drove an Austin-Healey 3000 that somehow felt faster at 45 mph than my Mazda RX-8 (or even my Toyota Highlander Hybrid) feels at 75 mph. That was a good thing.

This approach could be taken beyond the world of personal transportation. We’re in the current financial mess in part because things that were actually dangerous—from subprime mortgages to risky financial instruments that no one fully understood—felt safe and ordinary. Modern financial markets, with computers, regulations, deposit insurance and bond ratings, felt as routine and as smooth as that four-lane highway in Spain, causing a lot of people who should have been paying attention to doze off. Investors might have been more careful if it had felt like they were driving down a twisty mountain road with no guardrails, especially since we really were engaged in the financial equivalent of high-speed mountain driving, only without the discipline of fear.

In athletics, protection sometimes leads to more risk-taking. Research has shown that skiers who wear helmets ski faster than those who do not. Likewise, firearms instructors are quick to stress that the safety on a gun doesn’t actually render the weapon safe, just marginally safer, so that all usual precautions still apply. And I noticed when scuba diving with a spare air cylinder that instructors were concerned these backups would become popular with inexperienced divers and that this reliance might breed carelessness with the main equipment.

The traffic example demonstrates a general phenomenon of modern society: With the best of intentions, we tend to replace situations that call on the use of our wits with situations that we can sleepwalk through, and the solutions to matters with any serious consequences are postponed to the indefinite future. That’s a comfortable way to live, and there are good reasons to be glad of it—we’re not in a situation where one bad harvest means starvation, after all—but if you can postpone problems indefinitely, a lot of problems will be postponed. Yet the future eventually arrives.

Posted on Tuesday, March 31st, 2009 at 6:46 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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While We’re on the Subject of VW and Safety

Jessica Zafra raises a salient question about VW’s Phaeton, whose name is derived from the figure in Greek mythology who, in a quest to confirm that sun-god Helios is his father (as mother Euripides has confessed), takes Dad’s sun chariot out for a spectacularly ill-fated ride. As she asks: “Is it a good idea to buy a car named after a terrible driver who died in a spectacular crash?”

Perhaps consumers were hip to this — VW no longer makes the car, after all.

(Via Peter Stothard)

Posted on Tuesday, March 31st, 2009 at 6:37 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Safety Overhead

I was struck by the arresting difference in these two photos, from the IIHS’ recent tests on roof strength for small SUVs. The first, the Volkswagen Tiguan, looks like as if it didn’t go through the test. The second, the Kia Sportage, looks like a safe was dropped on it from ten stories up.

The Kia spokesman, who undoubtedly has some explaining to do, noted that the IIHS rating, “by itself, does not provide a complete assessment of a vehicle’s ability to protect occupants in these complex events.”

Well, this actually makes me feel even more leery; the IIHS performs one simple test — in reality, in a complex real-world event, there’s that many more ways for the roof to collapse, or for something else to go wrong.

Given the cost discrepancy between the VW and the Kia, this brings up an unfortunate reality of the car business — safety features cost money. I am reminded of a slide (pictured below) of a presentation by Tom Wenzel, which shows how car resale value is associated with risk. Of course, we can’t chalk this up entirely to “vehicle factors,” as we need to know who’s driving each kind of vehicle, how much and where they’re driving, etc. etc.

This distinction is not generally made in the media; as one will see articles like “the ten safest cars on the road.” But those are drawn from crash tests, not real-world insurance claims and fatality/injury figures. Perhaps “theoretically safest cars” is better. Wenzel’s presentations also do a great job of showing the complexity of car safety — e.g., that there’s more to it than sheer mass (there’s a weak relationship between weight and car safety, he notes, unless one accounts for the manufacturer; in other words, the quality of vehicle design seems more important than sheer size).

Posted on Tuesday, March 31st, 2009 at 6:05 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘Speed Zone Ahead’ and Other Types of Road Ambiguity

I enjoyed this post from Jeff Sommar on the ambiguity inherent in “Speed Zone Ahead” and other road signs. About “Speed Zone,” he writes: “Reading it at face value, which when you think about it, is how street signs should be read, you would think that the sign is alerting you to the fact that you will be able to speed up in the zone ahead.”

He goes on to mention the sign is used to signal increased speed ahead, as well as decreased speed, which I don’t think is actually true (please confirm, any engineers). But his point about the vagueness is well taken. The sign, after all, doesn’t tell you how much the speed is dropping by (or exactly when). As it turns out, the engineers have heard his cry of confusion, and the sign as pictured above is on the way out, according to some chatter on the MUTCD websites (this site shows some of the new configurations, which are yellow rather than white, and state specific decreases — never increases — in speed). As a side note, there’s also some discussion about what the proper placement is of these signs — so drivers have sufficient time to react and slow before hitting a new speed zone and, perhaps, a speed trap.

The “Speed Zone Ahead” sign brings up another issue of mine, which is the problem of having a road marked for, say, 65 mph, which suddenly hits a stretch that is 35 mph — but the road is exactly the same. The “Speed Zone Ahead” sign is thus a rather weak signal in changing behavior. I think compliance would be higher if, for example, the road were made narrower in the slower section; some alternative paving treatments were introduced; another potential solution is “optical speed zones,” the subject of an article in the latest ITE Journal by Steven Latoski — this treatment uses “bars” painted across the road that diminish in proximity as the driver progresses across them, thus increasing the feeling of speed, thus targeting “an instinctive road user reaction of relaxing the accelerator or adjusting the cruise control.”

I also like Jeff’s mention of the “Dangerous Intersection” sign. Given that signalized intersections account for a very high percentage of traffic crashes, perhaps this should be placed at all intersections. I understand the impulse to put up the sign, at least to provide liability coverage; but is that really all that can be done? And does putting the sign up at one location cause one to lower one’s guard at other areas not so marked? Tricky stuff, this traffic engineering.

Anyone else have favorite examples of signs that gave them pause? My favorite is one that says, simply, “No Traffic Signs.”

Posted on Sunday, March 29th, 2009 at 6:41 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Passive Voice is Killing Me

The passive voice, and its usage in reporting of car crashes, has been coming up often here lately (here and here).

This morning’s New York Times features another usage, in a particularly unsettling story. Now, I should first point out the Times, in its sort of detached mandarin role as omnipotent cultural arbiter, has been historically lousy with these constructions (e.g., “A reporter was told” instead of “I heard”). And, unfortunately, this has long been a staple of journalism; note Wolcott Gibbs’ brilliant take-down of the torturous prose that used to be called “Luce-speak” (at Time and elsewhere), collected in Dwight MacDonald’s sadly out-of-print collection Parodies: “Sad-eyed last month was nimble, middle-sized Life-President Clair Maxwell…”

In any case, here’s how today’s Times story began:

A 28-year-old pregnant woman was killed and a second woman was seriously injured on Friday afternoon when a driver, apparently intoxicated and following the women as they walked down a Midtown Manhattan street, lost control of a supermarket maintenance van, which jumped onto the sidewalk and slammed into them, the police and witnesses said.

I wondered about a different way to construct the opening line:

An apparently intoxicated driver killed a 28-year-old pregnant woman and seriously injured a second when he lost control of his van and slammed into them, the police and witnesses said.

This needs tinkering, admittedly, but the point is clear: In the first case, the question of agency is put down less to the driver than to the van, which mysteriously jumped the curb, leading to the method by which the woman “was killed.” The second point brings the point home more quickly, and I think leaves the reader feeling differently.

Some have raised the question of legal responsibility, and how a reporter may lean on the passive voice in trying to cover themselves against libel (or maybe it’s a gesture toward some sensitivity toward the driver; but what about the victim?). But I see nothing here that refutes the essential point: The driver killed the woman. This sentence does not use the criminal/legal distinction of “murder,” it is simply stating the obvious: Whether it was intentional or not, a killing took place. Unless the vehicle itself had a mechanical flaw, it cannot be directly held responsible (and even in that case a driver is ultimately responsible for maintaining his vehicle).

This leads to a second point; the use of the word “accident” throughout the story. That this word still appears so casually in stories involving intoxicated drivers rather astonishes me. Yes, it may have been “unintentional” or “unexpected,” but given what we know about what alcohol does to driving performance, and given that alcohol use while driving is tantamount to criminal negligence (or even murder, in a recent case), should the same word — accident — really be used to describe a drunk driver killing someone; and, say, the person who backed into me in a suburban New Jersey strip mall a month ago?

The reason epidemiologists dislike the word is that drunk driving deaths are clearly not accidental; they represent the largest cause of vehicular death in this country, and in most of the world; they are not random, they happen predominantly at certain times and to certain classes of drivers, in sharp and predictable patterns. The word “accident” in this story of the tragic death of the woman in Manhattan implies it was just part of the capricious wheel of fate, and not a clearly identified threat to public health. There’s a reason we don’t call plagues “accidents” — people want solutions found, measures taken. The recent crane collapses brought new legislation, panels of inquiry, etc.; what will this death bring?

I am frankly not sure why we are so afraid to assign responsibility in car crashes. Is it that we view traffic violations in general as “folk crimes,” not quite “real” crimes? Is it the “there for the grace of God” argument, that it may someday be us behind the wheel of “a car that strikes a pedestrian”? I sometimes hear the argument made, ‘well that driver will suffer the rest of his life for what he did’; maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But that’s not provable, not quantifiable. Prison time is. I find it interesting that people who commit negligent homicide while driving dangerously often walk, even as our jails are filled up with people who were simply trying to improve their lot in life — see this Times (!) story on how people busted on victimless immigration charges are filling up our federal jails).

Now, back to the passive voice. This itself is an ambiguous and sometimes misunderstood thing, as this interesting post notes. And you might argue that these are merely semantic issues. But how else do we frame and interpret the world in a meaningful, transmittable way except through language? The issue here is: What does language do? How does the use of the passive construction in the Times article change the way we feel about the incident?

A few years back, a researcher at UCLA named Nancy Henley had subjects in a trial read news accounts that reported crimes such as rape in both a passive and an active voice. As a summary in Psychology Today noted, “When men read rape and battery stories written in the passive voice, they attributed less blame to the perpetrator — and less harm to the victim — than for the active-voice versions.”

I’m not sure if a similar study has been done for the reporting of crashes, particularly involving pedestrians and/or cyclists (but I’d like to see one done) — which may be viewed as “out” groups in our vehicle heavy society. But it seems rather common-sense that the more that language distances the person who committed a crime and the crime itself, we will only naturally begin to attribute less responsibility to that person — perhaps even to the point where even the victim’s culpability is raised (and, eerily enough in the case of today’s news story, a report just came in via radio that the driver was sexual harassing the woman before then running her down). It may even shift us away from thinking that a crime was committed at all.

In his classic essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell noted that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Language changes how we feel about something; even what we remember about events, as a study by Elizabeth Loftus once found; people who viewed a clip of a car crash gave higher speed estimates after the fact depending on the words that were used (e.g, “smashed,” “struck” etc.). And of course it’s no surprise that the passive voice is an almost de facto occurrence when someone is trying to shift blame away from themselves: Ronald Reagan’s famous quip “mistakes were made.”

Which reminds me of a passage from the excellent book Mistakes Were Made, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. They write: ” A friend returning from a day in traffic school told us that as participants went around the room, a miraculous coincidence occurred: Not one of them was responsible for breaking the law. They all had justifications for why they were speeding, had ignored a stop sign, ran a red light, or made an illegal U-turn. He became so dismayed by the litany of flimsy excuses that, when his turn came, he was embarrassed to give in to the same impulse. He said, ‘I didn’t get stop at a stop sign. I was entirely wrong and I got caught.’ There was a moment’s silence, and then the room erupted in cheers for his candor.”

Through “cognitive dissonance,” we all manage to tell ourselves stories that we somehow weren’t responsible for stupid decisions we made. The media would do better than to turn this psychological flaw into a staple of its reporting.

Posted on Saturday, March 28th, 2009 at 5:34 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Vulnerable Road User

As a couple of readers have sent this video along (and thanks to all), uploaded from somewhere in India, I can no longer resist posting. Whether this was a stunt of some kind, or how he even did it, or whether he is still alive today are all questions beyond my immediate grasp. One sees many odd things on Indian roads, but this ranks up there.

Posted on Saturday, March 28th, 2009 at 5:41 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Light Reading

I found it surprising that this WSJ story on “red light camera” rage — and I’m waiting for the moment some fool checking his “Trapster” on his PDA blows a light and crashes — made it through an entire article without mentioning a.) the number of people killed in red-light running crashes (uh, more than 9/11 every year); b.) how countries with an increased adoption of the technology have made more impressive gains in their traffic safety records and c.) that rear-end crashes, which critics always cite as rising after installation of the cameras, are relatively minor in nature; while side impact crashes, which studies have shown have been reduced after installation of the cameras, tend to be more serious, and often fatal — to compare them so casually is typical of myopic mainstream-media reporting when it comes to traffic safety. The story notes the study that found that “governments use traffic tickets as a means of generating revenue”; it might also go to the trouble to cite the related study that, while finding truth in that, also found jurisdictions had improved their traffic safety. Traffic fatalities and injuries in and of themselves are a hidden “fine,” or “tax” if you will, that each year cost the U.S. more than the much-touted productively losses due to congestion. Looking also at studies that show tickets reduce the likelihood of a driver subsequently being involved in a fatal crash, fines can also be viewed as expenditure reducers.

Not to mention that the fact that I was taught, as every driver is, to maintain a sufficient following distance from the vehicle ahead — so much so that you could stop in time if the person ahead had to do something like slam on their brakes (particularly at complicated places like intersections).

Posted on Friday, March 27th, 2009 at 2:47 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Seattle-area police chief hits other car while reading text messages.

Note media use of “accident.”

And a further note: Even though causality is clear here, the passive voice reigns supreme! E.g., “a minor traffic accident that happened while he was checking his BlackBerry in his unmarked police car.”

The accident happened “while” he was checking, not because he was checking?

(Horn honk to Nathan)

Posted on Friday, March 27th, 2009 at 10:06 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Fairness and Road Funding: Tolls Are Regressive, but Sales Taxes Are More So

One of the first objections to congestion pricing of any sort is the undue burden it would place on lower-income groups (many of these objections seem to come from people who aren’t typically concerned with issues of distributional fairness in other arenas of life).

In “Just Pricing: The Distributional Effects of Congestion Pricing and Sales Taxes,” a paper published in the journal Transportation by USC’s Lisa Schweitzer & UCLA’s Brian D. Taylor, the researchers raise an immediate challenge to this logic: “This contention, however, fails to consider (1) how much low-income residents already pay for transportation in taxes and fees, or (2) how much residents would pay for highway infrastructure under an alternative revenue-generating scheme, such as a sales tax.”

In the paper, they examine the costs on users entailed by Orange County’s S.R. 91, the “value priced” road that allows commuters to choose faster travel times by paying a higher price, against other Orange County roads that are paid for by general sales tax, under Measure M — a more popular way, it turns out, to pay for the county’s “freeways” (an Orwellian abuse of language if there ever was one).

They make a number of important points which I’ll summarize here.

Are tolls regressive? According to this and many previous analyses, yes. But for transport
policy, whether tolls are regressive fails to fully address the justice and fairness issues that
arise in financing road use. Whenever members of lower income groups pay for services,
they may be expected to pay a greater share of their income than do the wealthy. Strictly
speaking, public transit fares are regressive. The fact that congestion tolls are regressive in
the abstract reflects only one aspect of the distributional justice issues facing transportation
and taxation. The real issues are comparative: are congestion tolls more or less regressive
than other tax or price strategies?

On the sales tax, which they note is the fastest growing way to fund roads in the U.S., they note that while sale taxes are distributed widely across society, lower-income groups pay the highest proportion of their income on sales taxes. But here’s the kicker:

While the income regressivity of sales taxes is an issue, it becomes an even greater concern when one notes how much sales tax revenues, when spent on transportation projects that primarily benefit individual users of an improved facility, redistribute cost burdens from users to non-users. In this case, the heaviest users of SR91’s priced lanes—who are the largest beneficiaries of the time savings it provides—are disproportionately from middle- and upper-middle income households both inside and outside of Orange County. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to compare such benefits in detail, we can say that if Orange County’s Measure M had financed the SR91 facility, the added capacity would have lowered the direct time and money costs of peak-hour, peak-direction trips on SR91 in the short term, but resulted in higher aggregate levels of person- and vehicle delay in the longer term if congestion reoccurs. From a regional planning perspective, funding freeway capacity with the sales tax is a pro-auto/pro-driving policy that taxes all residents, the rich and (disproportionately) the poor, to provide benefits to a smaller group of drivers and their passengers.”

This sounds like socialism, Orange County-style: From each regardless of their ability to pay, to each according to their mode of travel.

The sales tax is a “hidden” subsidy that makes driving seem cheaper than it is (and thus never encourages any reduction in driving). And on that subject let’s not forget the semi-permanent “gas tax holiday” the U.S. has been on for nearly the last two decades. As Taylor notes elsewhere (pdf here), “the average combined state/federal fuel tax in the United States today ($0.375 per gallon) charges drivers about $0.02 per miles, on average, for their use of the road system, the lowest rate in the developed world, and about one-third of the inflation-adjusted U.S. rate in 1960.”

The result is ever more drivers using ever worsening roads. The U.S. road transportation system in this regard reminds me of the old Catskills joke, noted in Annie Hall: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”

And going back to Orange County and Measure M, let’s not forget the question of externalities.

These problems are especially a concern if the environmental, energy, safety, and congestion externalities associated with driving are also regressively distributed (Schweitzer and Valenzuela Jr. 2004). If these externalities are, in fact, regressively distributed, then the Measure M transportation sales tax, if used on road projects, would disproportionately tax poorer residents to subsidize an activity whose externalities (such as noise and freeway-adjacent particulate emissions) harm them.

Posted on Friday, March 27th, 2009 at 8:10 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Safety Film of the Week

Just the facts, m’am. Sgt. Joe really could break it down. Some of the science has changed, but not of course the fundamental physical forces.

Posted on Thursday, March 26th, 2009 at 9:11 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Situational Awareness

The Daily Mirror reports on the case of a BMW driver whose SatNav nearly sent him off a cliff.

As a bonus they throw in ten memorable “SatNav disasters.”

(Horn honk to Warren)

Posted on Wednesday, March 25th, 2009 at 6:00 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Kiwi Kommuters in Krossing Kerfuffle, Khronikles Kent

Reader Kent (sorry about the headline, mate) writes in from New Zealand to comment on a quite controversial traffic rule, which seems as if it may be on the outs. As the image above shows, at uncontrolled intersections the car making a left turn (remember, they drive on the other side of the road, folks) must yield to an oncoming vehicle waiting to make a right turn across the intersection.

Judging by articles like this one, which clocked hundreds of violations at a single crossing, this is a law that is in serious conflict with the social norms.

The government is now looking into altering the law:

He said an initial analysis of a rule-change proposal in 2004 estimated it would mean at least eight to 24 fewer intersection casualty crashes a year.

Another ministry official confirmed later that the figure could be as high as 56 fewer injury crashes, yielding annual social cost savings of $12.8 million a year, if intersection safety improved as much as it did in Victoria after that Australian state reversed a similar rule in 1993.

Kent thought this practice might be called the “shortest radius” rule, and he speculates it had something to do with farm implements. He’s not sure where and when (and why) the practice began — any NZ engineers out there who can enlighten us?

The New Zealand Herald article notes this curious observation:

Left-turning drivers appeared to rely more on the whites of the eyes of those lining up in the opposing direction, rather than checking rear mirrors to see whether there were straight-heading vehicles behind to lend them cover.

Institution of Professional Engineers transport group chairman Bruce Conaghan believes it too risky to rely on left-turning traffic to predict the intentions of vehicles behind them, and says right-turning drivers have a far safer vantage point from which to judge when it is safe to go.

Maybe it’s late in the day here, and my head’s all turned round with this “wrong” side of the road stuff, but does this mean drivers can turn left on a multi-lane street from the lane not closest to the corner — i.e., so they’d be making a left turn across a stream of “inside lane” traffic that might be continuing straight from behind? That’s what I’m discerning from the quote above, but I may have it all wrong.

Posted on Tuesday, March 24th, 2009 at 5:09 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Mapping Traffic Laws

In the first of a series, the Insurers Institute for Highway Safety maps the dizzying patchwork of traffic laws across the country, starting with motorcycle/bicycle helmets (visit the actual site to activate the map).

I did not know there was a law on the NYC book that a passenger younger than one year old was not allowed (though I can’t say I’ve ever seen that law violated).

Posted on Tuesday, March 24th, 2009 at 4:43 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Boston Globe reports on a Cambridge mechanic who has installed his car’s steering wheel in the exact center of its dashboard.

I was particularly intrigued by this comment:

When he went to purchase car insurance he was told the premium would be $3,000 because the vehicle was so “unusual.” That was too steep for him, so he decided to keep the car strictly as a piece of spiritual artwork alongside dozens of other sculptures adorning his auto repair shop, Aladdin Auto Service.

How was this $3000 sum dreamed up? Are there actuarial tables for “unusual vehicles” — has someone calculated the average risk entailed by driving, say, a car that converts into a boat? Or is there a standard “nutty artist rate,” like for those goth hearses you sometimes see, or that “pedal car” that was in the news a while back? Come to think of it, I wonder what the insurance premium is for driving a right-side-drive car in the U.S.? Are those less safe because of the awkward fit with our roads, or does the driver increase his vigilance?

Posted on Tuesday, March 24th, 2009 at 4:33 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Where The Streets Have Too Many Lanes

In a piece in the The Oklahoman urban design guru Jeff Speck walks the streets of Oklahoma City and sees a traffic mirage:

“The jaw dropper for me is the city’s traffic count map,” Speck said. “If you walk the city, and you look at the streets, you would think because of the size of the streets that traffic is two to three times what is actually experienced. There is a shocking disconnect between the size and speediness of all of your downtown streets with a few rare exceptions…

…Speck showed the downtown street configurations to traffic engineers outside the state and their first response was to guess the street grid was set up for a downtown density and traffic volume comparable to Chicago or Manhattan.

They said this is a street network that will support three to four times the density it is handling,” Speck said. “Then you look at the traffic counts, and only a few carrying 10,000 a day. And 10,000 cars a day is easily handled by a two-lane road.”

I don’t know much about Oklahoma City (I’ve never been), but what’s with the highway-grade, six-laned streets? Is this is a relic of some oil boom? Was the city trying, through sheer boosterism and asphalt, to imagine itself as some Chicago of the plains? Evidently, it once had angled parking downtown; that, like two-way streets, were done away with by overzealous traffic engineers. It begs the question of when and how cities should downsize — or perhaps “rightsize,” to use that corporate euphemism of the 1980s.

(Via Planetizen)

Posted on Tuesday, March 24th, 2009 at 4:02 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The View from Down Under

After recently chatting with a journalist from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, I’ve got the country on my mind. I was interested to note that over the period from 1995 to 2004, total road deaths in Australia dropped 21%. In the U.S. over that same period, the number actually increased, by 2%.

Given that Australia and the U.S. have certain similar characteristics in roads and vehicles, the country is considered a particularly fruitful benchmark against the U.S. There are no doubt issues in terms of U.S. drivers having higher exposure, but measured in various ways (per person, per registered vehicle), the Australians logged much better performance over the same period.

Why? This DOT report, looking at the state of Victoria (as in the U.S., states can set their own road policies), cites the following as important, among other factors:

* Introduced a considerable number of traffic safety legislative and regulatory amendments to increase police powers, sharpen laws, and increase penalties. For example, a zero blood alcohol requirement was introduced for drivers in the first 3 years after licensing, the probationary license period was increased from 2 to 3 years, compulsory helmet wearing by bicyclists was introduced, the demerit points scheme was revised, and immediate license loss for all second and subsequent drunk-driver offenses was established.

* Introduced speed cameras as a method of speed limit enforcement.

* Increased random breath testing for the detection of alcohol-impaired drivers by a factor of at least five, to a point where (statistically) one in three Victorian drivers could be expected to be tested in any given year.

* Began a long-term program of public education to support specific safety initiatives and keep traffic safety in the public arena.

Posted on Tuesday, March 24th, 2009 at 12:32 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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More on the Geography of Danger

This map, of bicycle crashes in Toronto, was mentioned in the comments to the original post. And then there’s Transportation Alternatives’ invaluable crash maps. Projects like this loom on the horizon. I’d be curious to know what others are out there.

The potential impact GIS (and real-time mapping) has for traffic safety (among other things) seems great, particularly as we can add sophistication to the layers: Time of day, exposure data, road characteristics, etc. Some of this requires hard coding, but I’m wondering what other information could be gleaned from mobile phones and the like. The obvious source of interest would be something like pedestrian volumes and walking speeds, as recorded by iPhones and the like; too many pedestrians moving too slowly up Fifth Avenue — extend the walk signal! But other uses can be imagined as well; “dwell time,” the amount of time pedestrians spend in public areas, could be measured, for example. Or how quickly pedestrians cross streets (this could be part of a larger Christian Nold-style “bio-mapping project” to measure particularly unpleasant intersections and the like). Vibration-sensitive PDAs could monitor potholes on streets and in bike lanes. Sensors could detect “honks” and a “honk map” could be created, with targeted police enforcement and selective traffic engineering solutions. Credit cards could be synced up with MetroCards or EZPasses to determine how much economic activity in the city each form of transportation brings. Data on red-light running from camera-equipped intersections could be fed anonymously to in-car GPS systems, as well as those on the personal devices of pedestrians. The possibilities are legion.

One of the myriad problems with mapping risk is that the numbers, particularly when exposure data is absent, can lack explanatory power. Oh, there were no pedestrians struck this year on the F.D.R. Drive — this obviously does not imply a street that is safe for pedestrians. And while I do feel, like Pascal, that most of man’s unhappiness comes from not being able to simply stay quietly in his room, one must leave the house, and overhyping everyday dangers can be its own form of danger.

An interesting phenomenon in terms of risk and the built environment is that what we perceive as risky is not always the place where the risk actually lies (and it’s an interesting question as to whether this misperception itself leads to the risk profile). An interesting study at the University of North Carolina looked at students’ perceptions of pedestrian risk on campus versus perception and found that the two did not always correlate. The study found all sorts of curious detail, as charted in the image below (which shows a relatively equal distribution of crashes but certainly not an equal distribution of risk perception); e.g., there were more crashes near places like the stadium than people believed there were (there are certain biases to be careful of; proximity to a building in general increases the reporting of crashes, which may throw off the actual risk profile).

Posted on Monday, March 23rd, 2009 at 5:50 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Passive Resistance

David Alpert taps into an annoyance of mine, that staple of car crash reporting known as the passive voice.

He notes a Washington Post story from yesterday:

Four people ranging in age from 19 to 21 were killed early yesterday in Culpeper County, Va., when their car collided with a vehicle that was going the wrong way, Virginia State Police said.

As he notes, until we get to full DARPA-style automation, the sense of agency cannot be attributed entirely to the car (particularly in this case, as cars don’t choose to go down the wrong way down roads). But we seem to, and one wonders hows this plays into our cultural downgrading of personal responsibility when it comes to negligent driving.

Finally, our habit of dehumanizing the actions of cars tends to create assumptions that their actions are not actually someone’s responsibility. A driver hit and killed some people in another car in Culpeper. It’s extremely unlikely his car magically malfunctioned. And even if it did, we don’t engage in the same linguistic contortions to say, for example, that a police officer’s bullet impacted a suspected robber, who had themselves been holding a gun which fired into someone else earlier in the day. That would be silly. So is this.

This writer was in agreement.

Posted on Monday, March 23rd, 2009 at 2:31 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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If You Rented, You’d Be Home by Now

A piece on home-ownership and labor mobility in The Economist notes this curious fact:

“Homeowners commute farther than renters, which causes congestion and makes getting to work more time-consuming and costly for everyone.”

The source is Andrew Oswald at the University of Warwick. In his paper “Commuting in Great Britain in the 1990s,” he writes: “Our estimates imply from Table 7 an approximately 44% longer journey-to-work time for male owner-occupiers relative to those renting from the private sector housing market.” The data is British but I would guess it translates to the U.S.

Interesting in light of the link between foreclosure rates and commuting times, as explored in this documentary, this article about Contra Costa County, among other pieces.

Posted on Saturday, March 21st, 2009 at 4:08 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Transport column to me at:

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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



March 2009

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