Archive for March 6th, 2009

The Helmeted Cyclist as an “Indicator Species”

There are some striking passages in the new “Cycling in the Netherlands” report (via David Hembrow).

Wearing a bicycle helmet for daily trips is unusual in the Netherlands. Only competitive cyclists or mountain bikers tend to wear a helmet for their sport. Some parents give young children bicycle helmets. Usually the helmet is simply packed away for good before the offspring are 10 years old. There is certainly no support for mandatory helmeting. The fear exists that making it mandatory would cause a drop in bicycle use.

Sound dangerous? No, the reverse.

To talk about the relationship of bike helmets to safety is, it seems, to approach the situation in the wrong way. A useful analogy, I think, is to consider the presence or absence of certain species of birds in our environment. The near-disappearance of the peregrine falcon several decades ago was, it turned out, an indicator of the presence of toxic contaminants in our midst (it wasn’t just a bird problem, it was a human problem); we addressed the problem (somewhat), and the falcons returned. Conversely, the appearance of a flock of bike helmets could be read as a sign of safe and responsible individual behavior, or it could represent a species under attack in an unsustainable environment. To take another example, various species of woodpeckers have been on the decline, not just because of habitat loss, but because of the decline of natural processes, like fire, that give them the habitat they need. There too is a metaphor for cycling culture — without habitat, without the right habitat, a species won’t thrive. Given the Netherlands’ experience, helmets matter rather little — much more important are facilities, riders, enforcement, incentives, and the broader culture comprised of these things.

There’s all sorts of other interesting stuff in the report; e.g., this passage:

Most children are taught to ride a bicycle by their parents or a brother or sister at a very early age. This is less apparent amongst the growing of migrant population. Traditionally the bicycle is not part of Turkish or Moroccan culture. Often the parents cannot ride a bicycle, so no suitable bicycles are available in the household. In large cities with many migrants, extra attention is thus devoted to cycling skills in primary school. To ensure that all children gain cycling experience, the Amsterdam municipality makes bicycles available to schools, for instance. In a number of cities cycling courses for migrant women are also held. They can then master cycling in a protected environment. Many participants enjoy this as an opportunity to develop more skills.

The city giving bikes to schools — amazing! Here (in NYC) we read about community resistance to bike lanes so as not to interrupt the smooth vehicular conveyance of children to schools, typically in oversized vehicles that themselves are a threat to the urban environment.

Posted on Friday, March 6th, 2009 at 1:10 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Safety Film of the Week

Snark comes to the traffic safety world, via the Ad Council and The Daily Show’s Rob Riggle.

(Horn honk to Joseph Rose)

Posted on Friday, March 6th, 2009 at 11:49 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Negligent Design or Negligent Driving?

Via the St. Petersburg Times comes an interesting discussion of highway design featuring an old bugaboo, exiting on the left. In Traffic I spoke with some people at the FHWA who mentioned, essentially, that contemporary highway design tries to avoid exiting on the left, for a variety of reasons, including driver expectancy.

The piece brings up a number of issues. For one, it notes that three people have died on this section of highway, including one last week. No figures are given before that, though the facility opened in 1978. So whether this is an epidemic, or merely random, is hard to say; there may be a “regression to the mean” and we won’t see any further fatalities for the next ten years.

Second, and always lurking, is the issue of “driver behavior.” The most recent fatality, the article notes, was traveling 93 MPH. Is there a social responsibility for protecting someone behaving that negligently? If he had died by striking another vehicle, we wouldn’t be talking about bad design. Further, can good design save everybody (and what would the cost be)? I’d say we should be more worried, socially, about the harm that person may cause to others (and keeping those people off the road). The German autobahn was and is considered a design marvel; its smooth tarmac has also been home to many spectacular deaths.

The piece notes: “The left exit is counterintuitive, forcing drivers to slow down in the fast lane. The road’s elevation occludes a clear view of what lies around the corner. And the short, angled barrier walls do little to keep vehicles on the road, he said.”

Well, technically, people, there’s no such thing as a “fast lane.” There’s a passing lane. There’s also a speed limit. I also note a sign that clearly marks a reduction in speed on the ramp. And this isn’t really the sort of left-hand exit that people normally talk about giving drivers’ trouble — this is really the majority of the highway quite clearly swooping up and off to the left.

That said, the state engineers may be a bit too blithe in dismissing the risk. As a casual observer, I can imagine any number of small tweaks that could be done here relatively cheaply (cheaper than raising the height of the concrete walls). Rumble strips, flashing lights on the signs, etc. But I wouldn’t say this warrants some expensive overhaul — where’s the money coming from, anyway? — due to the actions of some severely negligent drivers.

(Horn honk to Shirl)

Posted on Friday, March 6th, 2009 at 11:39 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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A Cell Phone Risk You May Not Have Considered

I’ve been attending an excellent (sold out) series at the New York Academy of Sciences called “The Science of the Senses.”

A recent night featured the amazing pickpocket/thief/magician/security consultant Apollo Robbins — featured in the above video — and the equally impressive cognitive scientist Christof Koch.

At one point, Koch was talking about the cognitive impairment of cell phones while doing something like driving. And then Robbins chimed in with another hazard I hadn’t previously considered. He noted — and this is a man who knows how to take things off of people — that a person walking along and talking on a cell phone is a red flag to a pickpocket. Why? Robbins’ work, while certainly involving some physical dexterity, is really about redirecting people’s attention. Not simply their eyes, but their entire focus of attention. A person talking on a cell phone has already allocated a good deal of attention to that conversation, is dedicating another good portion to walking down the street, and is thus less likely to notice someone like a pickpocket removing them of their valuables (everything but their cell phone, at least).

Posted on Friday, March 6th, 2009 at 11:00 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Things I Didn’t Know

A new and occasional series of traffic facts that were novel to me.

I was in lovely Savannah, Georgia, yesterday at a AAA safety conference. I heard many interesting things (and managed to sneak out for some quick BBQ at Wall’s, a great place hidden in a house in an alley that I hadn’t been to in years and was worried may have closed in the intervening time).

One random fact I heard that was new to me was that Massachusetts has the lowest seat-belt wearing rate in the country. Somehow I had imagined some Western state (or maybe Alaska) would take top crown, not a relatively wealthy state with a concentration of high-tech and academia. Of course, the irony here is that Massachusetts, per mile, has the lowest fatality rate in the country — a fact that surely has to do with density (not so many chances to get in trouble, and lots of nearby trauma centers).

I’m not sure whether this is some expression of Emersonian self-reliance (neighboring New Hampshire is, of course, famously resistant to safety laws — “Live Free And/Or Die” is how someone put it). The reality, though, is that this non-seat-belt-wearing is actually not so self-reliant; this study shows the medical burden the state assumes in treating the unbelted occupants of cars in crashes. They also note, “Additionally, research has shown that the costs of unbelted injuries are 25% higher than belted injuries, and unbelted occupants are more likely to be Medicaid patients.”

Posted on Friday, March 6th, 2009 at 10:21 am 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.

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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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