Archive for the ‘Risk’ Category

Random Fact of the Day

Via the New Scientist: “Cannabis intoxication raises a driver’s risk of crashing by 1.3 to 3 times. By contrast, alcohol intoxication raises the accident risk by up to 15 times.”

Posted on Tuesday, January 27th, 2009 at 3:01 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Latest iPhone App: Crosswalk Warning

A new study in Accident Analysis & Prevention by Jack Nasar, Peter Hecht and Richard Wener finds that pedestrians on mobile phones were less aware of their surroundings and crossed streets less safely (curiously, a sample using iPods seemed less distracted, leading the authors to speculate “perhaps listening to music is a different kind of distraction than listening to words”).

The authors wonder if a technological fix might be appropriate. “Perhaps, the mobile phone or i-pod could alert pedestrians they were approaching a crosswalk or that a car is approaching.” This raises new questions. “If so, would the pedestrian notice and heed the warning?”

Posted on Monday, January 19th, 2009 at 9:20 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Curbing ‘Risk Compensation’ in New Hampshire

From the NYT:

“There has often been an appealing vein of common sense in New Hampshire, and that is true of its regulations for people who venture outdoors. The state has always done what it can to rescue hikers and skiers who get lost or in trouble. Since 1999, it has billed them for the costs of rescue if their behavior was reckless. But in July, the standard was changed. If you find yourself in trouble thanks to your own negligence, a lower threshold of responsibility, then you also may end up paying the cost for being rescued.

There is something a little peculiar about the need for a law like this. The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department is hoping not only to recoup some of its rescue costs, but also to warn hikers and skiers that their behavior in nature has consequences.

It’s hard to imagine Americans protesting about having to pay for their ambulance rides after getting sick at home, or injured in a highway crash. But most Americans live lives that are incredibly distant from nature. They often do not understand that venturing into the backcountry means entering a realm of purely personal responsibility.

The greater reach of cellphone service, while making rescue more likely, makes it easier to forget the risks. You can get just as lost while carrying a cellphone — even with good coverage — as you can without it.

That is New Hampshire’s trouble, and it is one of the reasons there is controversy over efforts to expand cellphone coverage in the national parks. That includes Yellowstone, where there are plans to expand the cellphone service that exists near developed areas, like Old Faithful. The backcountry is a world with rules of its own, enforced by nature itself. If that means billing visitors for the costs of their negligence, we say, fine by us.”

Posted on Monday, January 19th, 2009 at 8:10 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘A Prevailing Sense of Tragedy’

A friend writes from Trinidad to alert me that the book had been referred to in yesterday’s Trinidad Guardian, albeit under an unfortunate set of circumstances: The road death of a promising young boxer. The editorial follows:

“Refresh message of road safety

The news of the death of boxer Jizelle Salandy and the injuries sustained by national footballer Tamara Watson only add to a prevailing sense of tragedy on the roads of Trinidad and Tobago. Just a few days before, an automobile crash threatened the careers of two of this country’s track stars, Richard Thompson and Monique Cabral. In the first week of the new year, there are already two fatalities on the books and the loss of Salandy, a young boxer with an unblemished record of wins, is particularly painful. The Arrive Alive campaign has done much to bring the issue of road safety back into public discourse, and to heighten awareness of hot-button issues like drunk driving.

If, however, there is anything at all that a troubled nation can take away from the disturbing news of the last week, it is the need to drive the message of careful and defensive driving deeper into the public psyche. Among its many warnings about crime in Trinidad and Tobago, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office cautions: “The standard of driving in Trinidad and Tobago is erratic. Road accidents leading to fatalities are a regular occurrence.” On his blog, Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), noted about his visit to Trinidad and Tobago in December, 2008: “According to Thursday’s Trinidad Guardian, in a little box headlined ‘Mr. Death’ showing an image of the Grim Reaper, there have been over 250 (actually 226 at that point) road fatalities this year in T&T.

“By just one comparison, Northern Ireland, which this year had one of its safest years ever, has around 120 fatalities—with a population some 600,000 larger. The reasons are not hard to imagine: There are many two-lane, non-divided highways in the country, which people drive at routinely high speeds (life seems relaxed everywhere except the roads).” The reasons for the high incidence of accidents and road fatalities are well known; a culture that endorses speeding and a lax appreciation of the rules of the road and the lingering machismo of drinking and driving. The tragedy of Jizelle Salandy’s passing and the near misses that have spared Thompson, Cabral and others who have survived mishaps on the road recently, should serve as a caution for the upcoming Carnival season, which will run for potentially dangerous weeks.

While previous efforts at road safety education have been enthusiastic and laudable, real changes in national attitudes to road safety will only come when people start talking to each other about the consequences of dangerous driving behaviour. Those conversations need to begin among young people, the sector of society most likely to be out late at night, driving fast cars and in a state of diminished judgment. Stakeholders interested in minimising risk on the road and Government agencies and ministries with a focus on the young should encourage popular young personalities to make road safety and sound judgment when driving in risky situations part of their conversations with their audiences, colleagues and friends.

Young people with a leadership role in communities, schools and groups should be encouraged to set an example and spread positive word of the value of key safety issues like designated drivers, defensive driving techniques and the need to respect the safety of passengers over matters of ego or style. Through our youth newspaper, GIENetwork, the Guardian stands ready to play our part in delivering a message of safety and due diligence on the road to young people vulnerable to the temptations and enthusiasms of driving during the Carnival season. A reduction in the number of people killed on the nation’s roads requires an all-out national effort that touches everyone in this society, in order to forestall the loss and injury of valuable young lives.”

While I’ll all for the messages of attitudes and personal action in the editorial, there is one other aspect that deserves note, namely this fragment from a Guardian article:

“Frederick said that upon reaching vicinity of the NP overpass at Sea Lots, Port-of-Spain, Salandy hit a culvert and smashed head-on into a concrete pillar, dubbed the killer pillar. People who fell victims to that pillar in the past included Ram Kirpalani and chief immigration officer Joseph Bodkyn. Members of the Emergency Health Services (EHS) arrived promptly and pulled out a bloodied Salandy who was still conscious. She was taken to the Port-of-Spain General Hospital, but died around 8.29 am, while undergoing emergency surgery.”

I don’t know the road in question, but under modern safety engineering such an obstruction near a road intended for higher speeds — particularly one that already killed at least two other “boldface” names — would certainly be dealt with some Brifen wire, etc.

Posted on Wednesday, January 7th, 2009 at 3:43 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Texting While Driving Death

Via the BBC:

“Ms Curtis, 21, told Oxford Crown Court she thought you could use a phone when driving “in the right conditions”. She denies death by dangerous driving.”

The problem is that drivers, particularly younger ones, are ill-equipped to judge what the “right conditions” are — not to mention that the right conditions often become the “wrong conditions” with no advance warning.

“She also told the court she could send and receive messages without taking her eyes off the road.”

Her eyes, perhaps, but her mind? Alas, not.

Posted on Friday, December 19th, 2008 at 8:03 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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On Drunk Driving Deaths

Clyde Haberman raises a good point in today’s New York Times: Why does Plaxico Burress potentially face years for illegally possessing a dangerous weapon (even if chances are slim he’d do that time), while Staten Island Congressman Vito Fossella got just a few days for illegally driving a dangerous weapon?

He writes: “But cars kill, too, especially when a drunk is at the wheel. About 13,000 Americans are killed every year by what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls “alcohol-impaired drivers.”

The second sentence raises a point that may seem semantic but is, I think, important. The majority of people who die in alcohol-related crashes in the U.S. do so in what are known as single-vehicle crashes. So it seems imprecise to say they are “killed by” an impaired driver, when they are in fact the driver. A number of these fatalities will, of course, be passengers; strictly speaking, they are victims (although often complicit) of a drunk driver. But even so we can hardly conclude that 13,000 people a year are killed by drunk drivers, unless we imagine the impaired driver as a kind of separate self. But this phrase crops up all the time in the news.

My problem with this usage, apart from its strict factual and semantic inaccuracy, is that it subtly shifts the risks that impaired driving brings away from the individual, and onto some unknown “other” driver, which may in its own way contribute to the behavior. This is not to say that drunk drivers do not exact a huge and terrible toll on people in other vehicles (and outside of the vehicle). But, statistically speaking, the greatest risk drunk driving poses is to the actual driver himself (and any passengers). It may sound more dramatic to imply that there were 13,000 sober people in traffic who were killed by drunk drivers, but it doesn’t really help get us any closer to the root of the problem — the driver with the key in his hand, his own greatest risk.

Posted on Tuesday, December 9th, 2008 at 8:59 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Risk Roundup

There were three tidbits that caught my eye in the IIHS’ latest Status Report.

In a piece about car-deer crashes:

“Most of the crash deaths occurred after a motor vehicle had struck an animal and then run off the road or a motorcyclist had fallen off a bike. Many of these deaths wouldn’t have occurred with appropriate protection. The study found that 60 percent of the people who were killed while riding in vehicles weren’t using safety belts, and 65 percent of those killed on motorcycles weren’t wearing helmets.”

In a piece about new school bus safety initiatives:

“During the past 8 years, an average of 148 people have died each year in crashes involving school buses. Only 6 of the people who died were passengers on the buses, and 5 were bus drivers. Of the remaining deaths, 106 were occupants of vehicles that collided with school buses, 26 were pedestrians, and 4 were bicyclists (1 death was unknown).”

And in a piece about motorcycle fatalities:

“Motorcyclist deaths have more than doubled since 1997, reaching a record 12 percent of the 41,059 motor vehicle crash deaths in 2007. More motorcyclists died in crashes during 2007 than in any year since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began collecting data in 1975 in what’s now the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). In contrast, fewer passenger vehicle occupants (28,896) died in crashes in 2007 than in any year since FARS began. The motor vehicle death toll in 2007 was the lowest in 13 years.The rise in motorcyclist deaths continues to be pronounced among riders 40 and older (see Status Report, Nov. 21, 2006; on the web at During 2007, 49 percent of motorcyclists killed were 40 and older, up from 40 percent in 2000 and 14 percent in 1990.”

Posted on Friday, December 5th, 2008 at 10:22 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Spare the Tree, Cut Down the Litigation

A reader recently alerted me to yet another “trees and traffic” saga, this time in Sag Harbor, NY. Briefly, a 100-year-old black oak, beloved by neighborhood residents, was cut down after being struck by drivers in two separate incidents (one involving a rollover).

Now, it turns out the tree’s core had rotted, but what’s important here is that before this was even known, the ax was coming — because the tree, which had lasted virtually the entire history of automobile-dom, was viewed as a traffic hazard. Being generally of the mind that traffic is the hazard, I always view these claims with suspicion. This was a street marked for 25 mph. Assuming you were driving the proper speed and paying attention, how do you a.) strike something as large and obvious as a tree and b.) roll over your vehicle? (Any crash reconstructionists reading? I beg for elucidation). Trying to eliminate every potential physical hazard from the landscape to cater to some vision of crash-free driving forgets that the greatest source of risk comes from the driver himself.

Which is not to say nothing should have or could have been done; town officials claimed that a “bulb-out” or some other measure meant to wrap the road around the tree would cause the road to be too “narrow.” Too narrow according to some blanket set of prescriptions that take no heed of things like local character — and for what it’s worth, I’ve yet to see a road in the U.S. that could be described as “too narrow.” Narrow roads, moreover, are good for neighborhoods. The sad truth is the town was, perhaps rightly, more worried about litigation. And so yet another distinctive bit of the landscape was meant to be sacrificed to ensure the smooth flow of traffic, with greater safety — unless, that is, another driver weaves across the road into your path. Do you then eliminate the other lane of traffic?

The Sag Harbor Express had this to say:

“What unnerves us about this situation specifically is there appears to be a willingness on the village’s behalf to remove this tree not because it is dying, but because it appears to be a hazard due to its location in the roadway. We understand it is the village’s responsibility to protect its residents from facing untold amounts of liability as well as hazardous conditions, we are not convinced every avenue has been explored in this scenario.

We encourage the village to look at ways to keep this oak, if it is in fact a viable tree, through planning or engineering as is often done in communities committed to historic street trees that often, in their quirky way, stick out into roadways that were designed around them in the first place.

In a time where we are seeking to protect the character of our community with every tool we have, we would like to see the same initiative used on behalf of village officials in this case.

We do live in a litigious society, as Sag Harbor officials well know, dealing with a number of lawsuits over the last decade brought by people who did not have the foresight to watch their own step. We bemoan the fact that people across the country do not seem able to take responsibility for their own actions any more, rather placing the blame on someone else’s shoulders for their own errors. However, we would hate to see the village allow itself to be victimized by these very people and begin what we see as allowing that fear of litigation, in part, dictate what we deem worthy of protection.”

Posted on Friday, December 5th, 2008 at 9:00 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Quieting the Ring Road: Shared Space Hits it Big in Ashford

One of the most ambitious “shared space” projects to date, and one that bears careful study, has been unveiled in the English city of Ashford. In a striking departure from what we normally associate with the concept of “road improvements,” the county council has spent some 13 million pounds to “break up” the old one-way, high-speed ring road circling (and strangling, some say) the city and convert it into a series of two-way, narrower, slower (20 mph) “quality streets” — largely free of aesthetically displeasing and typically ignored traffic signage.

As the after (above) and before (below) photos show, the changes are meant to improve pedestrian access to the town center, which had been curtailed by the old “concrete collar,” as one politician dubbed the ring road. New road treatments have been put in, the sidewalks (or pavements, as the English say) have been widened (they are now wider than the actual roads), and typical traffic infrastructure, from the humblest sign to the brightest traffic signals have been removed. As the county’s website puts it, the “shared space” project (whose consultants include Ben Hamilton-Baillie, who appears in Traffic), “seeks to change the ‘mental maps’ that drivers create and alert them to a different environment in which pedestrians and cyclists have equal priority. The keys to this are low speeds, a narrow carriageway and the removal of the typical visual clues for drivers, such as information signs and pedestrian guard railing.”

The press, rather than talk about, say, how the project might make the town a more livable place, has focused on one aspect: The provocative stance towards traffic interactions on the new road. The Times wrote: “Drivers no longer have the right of way on the ring road in Ashford, Kent, and have to negotiate their way across junctions, with no signs or lines to guide them. All road users, whether travelling on foot, by bicycle, car or bus, have equal priority and must use eye contact to decide who goes first.” This is the same sort of thing that has been successfully deployed everywhere from London to Sweden, and happens in more informal environments like parking lots, but still elicits an inherent suspicion, as we seem to treat drivers as a group as a class beyond behavioral change, beyond the capability of reacting to shifting hazards, beyond the ability to act civilized. The paper quotes Paul Watters, head of roads policy at the AA: “Those streets will be reverting to the law of the jungle. There will be road rage, collisions and chaos because no one knows who has priority.”

To which I might only say that road rage, collisions, and chaos, in my experience, occur as much, if not more, on the roads in which the priority — and everything else, including the majority of space — quite clearly belong to cars (my nearby Brooklyn example is Atlantic Avenue, a perennially promising street calling out for a renaissance but which reminds chronically hampered by a vast gulf of routinely speeding traffic down its six lanes; crashes, involving both vehicles and pedestrians, are frequent). The high incidence of pedestrians struck (with the right of way) by cars turning on “their” green light is proof enough that signals themselves only go so far and may in fact heighten danger. Of course, the issue goes far beyond design: Beginning with more thorough education for drivers and ending with much stiffer penalties for violating fundamental traffic laws.

I hope to make it to Ashford to see some of this first-hand, but in the meantime, there’s loads of information at the Kent County Council’s site. Also work a look is the “Lost O” website, after the vanished ring road, which details a set of public artworks (including Montreal’s excellent Roadsworth) that were unveiled on the build-up to the project — to the typical alarm, scorn, and consternation of shrill outlets like the Daily Mail.

Posted on Monday, December 1st, 2008 at 2:09 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Driving While Male

Quality Planning, whose research shows up a bit in Traffic, has released a new study which shows that “male drivers are cited for reckless driving 3.41 times more than women.”

The data was derived thusly:

“Quality Planning said it analyzed 12 months’ of 2007 policyholder information for U.S. drivers, comparing the number of moving and nonmoving violations for both men and women. Overall, the data shows that men are much more likely to receive a traffic citation than women, and that this difference in driving behavior is consistent across all age groups.”

Men do drive more miles, of course, and I’m not sure if this was corrected for in some way (women may drive recklessly but their exposure is lower, so less chance of being caught; or maybe male traffic cops really are less likely to issue tickets to women — after all, as this study by Michael Makowsky and Thomas Strattman found, “ceteris parabis, young females have the lowest probability of receiving a speeding ticket”), but the gender difference seems much larger in any case than any mileage discrepancy.

Two other points worth noting:

“The resulting accidents caused by men lead to more expensive claims than those caused by women.”

“Women drivers were also about 27 percent less likely than men to be found at fault (1-49 percent negligent) when involved in an accident, according to the company.”

(Tap of the horn to UC-Berkeley’s Traffic Safety Center)

Posted on Saturday, November 15th, 2008 at 2:55 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Risky Business: Speeding and Trading

It’s hardly news in the traffic psychology world that people who routinely speed fall under the category of what are called “sensation-seekers.” But it’s always interesting to see just who those people are, and how this behavior correlates with other areas of their life.

A study by Mark Grinblatt, a professor of finance at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Matti Keloharju, a finance professor at the Helsinki School of Economics, titled “Sensation Seeking, Overconfidence and Trading Activity” (available here), gets at that question in an interesting way.

They had access to an interesting data set: A record of investing behavior among Finnish households that had, scattered amongst its sub-categories, the number of speeding tickets those households received. And they found an interesting relationship: “Each additional speeding ticket tends to increase turnover by 11%.” In other words, the people who sped the most, traded the most.

The economists were really looking to find evidence of whether behavioral attributes could explain trading volume, but the finding is just as relevant for driving. Whether it was down to sensation-seeking or, perhaps, overconfidence, the riskiest investors took the most risks on the road. And given that this was Finland, where speeding tickets for violations over 15 kph are related to one’s income, the risks one took could bear a high financial (and personal) cost. Interestingly, those who traded most didn’t see better performance than those who traded less (not to mention all the money they probably lost to speeding tickets). And it will surprise no one that “sports cars,” as a variable, were more linked to the most active traders, though not as much as speeding tickets.

Posted on Thursday, November 13th, 2008 at 4:43 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Are Narrower Lanes More Dangerous?

An interesting article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch notes that crashes have increased on I-44 after they were narrowed to 11 feet wide, from 12 feet. They were narrowed to add a fifth lane and increase capacity in the wake of the temporary closure of another road, Highway 40. This is of interest because a key congestion-fighting measure that has emerged for an era of scarce highway funds is increasing the efficiency of existing infrastructure (e.g., by carving out new lanes).

The article notes: “The increase in overall collisions is typical whenever lanes become narrower, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The skinnier the lane, the less room there is for error. It’s why the federal government recommends that lanes on interstates be 12 feet wide.”

But there are some caveats to consider, within the same article:

1.) “Volumes on I-44 have gone up 10 percent to 30 percent during rush hour since the Highway 40 closures, according to the Transportation Department.” If the crash figure is 27 percent higher than the comparison period, it’s hard to know what percentage of crash increase has to do with narrower lanes, and which has to do with increased volume (or some other factor).

2.) Fatal crashes have actually gone down. Does that make the entire facility more or less safe?

3.) The speed limits have been reduced, but driver compliance is an issue. “You look at them and think, ‘OK, there goes another idiot,'” Stremlau said. “It’s that way on any highway. It’s just exacerbated by the narrower lanes.” Safety depends on context, and the real issue seems to be driver speed rather than lane width.

4.) The types of crashes mentioned, multi-car rear-end collisions, have little to do, theoretically, with lane width. “The bulk of them,” a police officer said, “are caused by tailgating.” Tailgating is a speed issue, not an issue of proximity to a neighboring vehicle. The police even came up with a novel suggestion: “Despite more traffic, police say the additional lane can make the interstate feel less congested, thus encouraging drivers to floor it.”

5.) There may be less room for error, but that may make drivers pay more attention, thus canceling out the increased risk.

Ezra Hauer has researched this issue rather extensively, and reports on the complexity of the issue here. Note that some crash types have been found to increase over 11 feet.

Of one study, he writes: “They also note that “narrowing of lanes to 11 feet (or occasionally 10.5 feet) while maintaining shoulders did not change accident rates.” Based on the review of several projects in California the authors note that: “. . . higher accident rates had not materialized several years after lanes were narrowed and left shoulders were removed . . .”

Posted on Wednesday, November 12th, 2008 at 6:02 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Bikes Not Bombs

John Adams explodes the fear of “bicycle bombs.” And his point on life jackets is well taken too.

[I should clarify, vis a vis the comment below, that Adams is talking about actual bicycles converted into bombs, rather than explosives attached to bicycles — which seems to be the case in this article — which are in theory no different than explosives strapped to human suicide bombers.]

Posted on Tuesday, November 11th, 2008 at 4:01 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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From today’s Globe and Mail.

“Is cellphone use by drivers dangerous? Yes, it increases the risk of a crash or near-crash by 1.3 times (2.8 times, when dialling), the Alberta review found. But then, eating hikes the risk by 1.6 times, inserting a CD by 2.3 times, applying makeup by 3.1 times and looking at, say, a billboard or someone on the sidewalk by 3.7 times. An insect in a vehicle raises the odds of a crash by 6.4 times.”

It’s that last bit that caught my eye. I know my wife virtually climbed out of the seat when a spider once dangled down from the rear-view mirror. And I’ve had some scrapes with bees. I’ve no idea where the data comes from in the governmental study, or whether all insects carry equal crash risks.

Posted on Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 at 4:11 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Getting It Wrong in Montogomery County

As was recently reported in the Washington Post, Montgomery County, Md., is planning an overhaul of its “road code,” the sort of thing that seems like a bureaucratic footnote but then goes on to have major implications in the built environment.

Among the major issues, the newspaper reported:

The panel recommended that roads in urban areas be designed for speed limits of 30 to 40 mph, saying anything slower would be unrealistic and difficult for police to enforce. The panel also said trees should be planted farther from curbs on roads with 40 mph speed limits because of the danger they pose to motorists who hit them.

What strikes me in discussions like these is the weird disconnect between design and driver behavior. One of the reasons it can so often be difficult to enforce lower speed limits is that these limits are posted on roads that are intensely over-engineered. The supposed “fix,” as suggested above, is to assume that drivers are going to drive at a certain speed, and so to then rearrange the entire landscape — removing trees, etc. — to allow them to do so “safely.”

Of course, on the road “designed” for speed limits of 30 to 40 mph, they will inevitably drive faster. But then, of course, if someone crashes and kills a pedestrian or another driver, it’s an “accident,” it’s down to driver behavior; if they smash into a tree, it’s deemed poor traffic safety engineering. As the work of Eric Dumbaugh has found, looking at streets like the one above, at Stetson University in Florida, often the worst safety performance comes on the roads that are deemed “safe” by traffic engineers, while the best can come on tree-lined streets like the one above (which had no crashes and speeds below 30 mph during the five years he looked at it).

We consistently get urban speeds wrong in the U.S. In Germany, the land where speed is supposedly worshipped, the speed-limit free sections of the autobahn are contrasted by a mandatory, heavily enforced 30 KPH (that’s 18 mph, folks) limit in residential areas.

Another classic specter the article invokes is emergency response times. Any time a group seeks to lower speeds on a road, there are dark projections made of people being killed in fires because firefighters will be held up on traffic calmed streets. Well, for one, have you ever seen these vehicles on the way to an incident? They often don’t actually drive that much faster than anyone else — particularly since cars frequently don’t get out of the way in time — but I wonder if the lights and sirens and the panic they induce may make us overestimate their sense of urgency. In any case, studies have suggested that emergency-response teams are as likely to be help up by random traffic delays and the like as anything else.

But the larger issue is risk. As Reason magazine has pointed out, the risk of dying in a fire in the U.S. is roughly the same as drowning: In one year, 1 in 88,000, and, over a lifetime, 1 in 1100. The risk of dying in a car crash, according to the article, is 1 out of 6500 in a year. The risk of being killed while being a pedestrian? “A one-year risk of one in 48,500 and a lifetime risk of one in 625.”

Designing roads to meet some supposed emergency response criteria, for that dramatic last-second rescue, actually helps raise the risk of dying in a much more common way: In traffic.

Posted on Tuesday, October 21st, 2008 at 8:41 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Is M. Night Shyamalan Working for the DFT?

The U.K.’s “Think” campaign typically offers first-rate stuff (even when they borrow the concepts from others, as in the “gorillas” video), and this one’s no exception.

I can’t remember the last time I saw an ad in the U.S. talking about speed and pedestrian safety.

(via The Transportationist)

Posted on Thursday, October 16th, 2008 at 1:00 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Speed: Are Teens the Only Problem?

Ford’s new “MyKey” program has been getting a lot of press. As Scientific American sums up:

“MyKey has a transponder chip that, once plugged into the ignition, allows car owners to program their car’s computer. This includes setting the car’s maximum speed limit as high as 80 miles per hour, and to issue warning chimes when the car’s speed reaches 45, 55 or 65 miles per hour. Although a driver can still do a lot of damage at 80 miles per hour, and it exceeds most speed limits, this speed does allow for more maneuverability during highway driving (particularly if a driver needs to pass the car ahead).”

All the press has noted that this is meant as a way for parents to have some influence over their son’s or daughter’s driving. Given the overinvolvement of teens in serious crashes, on balance I think it’s a worthwhile idea (even if an 80 MPH governor is quite beside the point on, say, a normal suburban road).

But I also wonder about the subtle message these sort of technologies and programs send. Indeed, whenever you hear about some program to monitor driver behavior or provide driver feedback, it always seems to be oriented towards teens. This makes sense on the level that learners need the most feedback and monitoring, and are at the highest risk on the road, but it also seems to suggest that the rest of us are quite fine to go at whatever speed we think is OK, and that there’s nothing really to address in that.

When you look at the numbers of speed-related crashes, the evidence suggests the problem is hardly limited to teens. As I’m currently in Canada, I’ll refer to some Canadian research (though there’s little reason to doubt it’s much different in the U.S.).

Looking at this report from Transport Canada, it’s quite clear that younger drivers pose the greatest risk in terms of speed — some one in three fatal crashes happened to drivers between 16-24 (that age range obviously extends beyond the teenage years).

But it hardly stops there. Overall, some eighty percent of speeding drivers in fatal crashes are under 45. And one of the most interesting trends identified was that speed-related crashes were actually growing faster among drivers over 45 years of age than those younger than 45, as the chart below notes.

Clearly, it’s more than a “teen driving” issue — and it raises the question of who’s minding the minders.

Posted on Thursday, October 9th, 2008 at 8:58 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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While We’re on the Subject of Denmark…

Mikael at Copenhagenize wrote me recently to note that the Politiken, the newspaper mentioned in the previous post, has for the past few years been making it a point to write up the details of every traffic fatality that occurs in Denmark.

The deaths, represented starkly in a field of red crosses (moving your cursor over each reveals the details behind the incident). The website, in Danish, can be viewed here.

As I discuss a bit in the book, statistics for traffic deaths are a bit confounding. Unlike large-scale events, like the recent train crash in Los Angeles, they tend to involve small numbers of people (often just one), scattered about the country. These individual tragedies add up to a severe problem on an epidemiological level — yet this presents its own problems. We hear, for example, at the end of the year, an annual toll of highway fatalities, but as the work of Paul Slovic has demonstrated — people feel less compelled to respond as the statistical number goes higher (and as an aside, most people in the U.S., in surveys at least, don’t know how many people are killed in traffic every year).

And then, when talking about taking steps to reduce fatalities, weird factors, like a kind of “proportion bias,” creep in. In a paper by Fredrich, et al., titled “Psychophysical Numbing: When lives are valued less as the value of lives at risk increase,” published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, the researchers found, to quote Slovic, “that people required more lives to be saved to justify mandatory anti-lock brakes on new cars when the alleged size of the at-risk pool (annual braking-related deaths) increased.”

So what Politiken is doing presents a few possible responses. One, it might raise people’s awareness of traffic risk (at least those who read the newspaper). The second, though, is that tallying up the numbers may “numb” people to a certain extent, making them feel that such deaths are inevitable (to be fair, the newspaper does give the details behind each). In that vein one wonders whether it would be more effective to write at length about only a few deaths, but at great length, making the victim seem like “more than just a number.” Slovic’s research has found that people are much more willing to make donations to save the life of a refugee when it’s only one refugee they’re told about, rather than masses of refugees. Of course, with traffic fatalities, there’s no one to actively save, which also makes campaigns difficult. In any case, I do think Politiken is to be commended for its novel approach (Streetsblog was doing a similar thing for the New York City-area but seems to have stopped) to an enduring social problem. Curious for any opinions one way or the other.

Posted on Tuesday, October 7th, 2008 at 4:47 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Poll Toll: The Risks of Driving and Voting

From the Chicago Tribune comes news of a new hotbed of risk on the road: Voting.

“The study found that on average, 24 more people died in car crashes during voting hours on presidential election days than on other October and November Tuesdays. That amounts to an 18 percent increased risk of death. And compared with non-election days, an additional 800 people suffered disabling injuries.”

The authors are none other than Donald Redelmeier and Ronald Tibshirani, whose work appears in several places in Traffic. No word on whether risk was higher for voters for the winning/losing side (as was the case in their “Super Bowl” study); or whether risk was lower in places where voting can be done by mail-in ballot.

“This is one of the most off-the-wall things I’ve ever read, but the science is good,” said Roy Lucke, senior scientist at Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety. He was not involved in the study, which appears in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

Luckily, I live exactly one block from the public school in which I vote (though I do have to cross a pretty busy street).

Posted on Wednesday, October 1st, 2008 at 4:16 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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To Wear Or Not to Wear (and Is That Even the Right Question?): Ian Walker on Cycle Helmets

When I was in the U.K. doing radio interviews for Traffic, I would often get asked if wearing cycle helmets actually made things less safe for cyclists. This happened primarily because the book features rather striking research by Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist at the University of Bath, and this was mentioned in the press kit.

To briefly summarize, in his study (published as “Drivers overtaking bicyclists: Objective data on the effects of riding position, helmet use, vehicle type and apparent gender,” in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention), Walker outfitted a bike with a device that measured the distance of passing cars. He found, among other things, that drivers tended to pass more closely when he was wearing a helmet than when not (he was struck by vehicles twice, both while wearing a helmet).

This was a surprising, somewhat controversial finding that generated a lot of news coverage. To my mind, Walker’s findings were more interesting for what they said about interpersonal psychology on the road than safety itself; mostly because I felt, and Walker seems to agree, that the primary question of bicycle safety had less to do with the helmet than other factors. As the above photo suggests, cyclists in places like Copenhagen or Amsterdam very rarely wear helmets, and yet they enjoy a much safer ride than in places (like the U.S.) where helmet-wearing seems more ingrained. The argument is often made that those places have protected cycle lanes and the like — though the photo also shows that is not always the case.

But to return to the radio interviews, I often found myself getting frustrated because the radio journalists seemed to want a handy “takeaway” answer: Well, do helmets make cyclists safer or not? The problem was, I really didn’t know (disclaimer: I do wear one, rather out of habit and without much thought other than a fear of New York City streets).

This was a problem I had in trying to give many answers relating to traffic — there are often an endless series of “on the other hand” qualifiers. As with any kind of epidemiological inquiry, traffic presents such a complex system, with so many interacting variables (e.g., do helmets make drivers act less safe) and “confounding factors” and incomplete data sets, that coming up with easy answers is impossible: and anyone who seems to have easy answers probably doesn’t know what they’re talking about. One favorite example of this for me is the nutmeg you hear drivers say, with deeply held conviction: ‘Well I’ve heard it’s not speed itself that’s the problem, it’s differences in speed.’ This is a statement that is true — except when it isn’t. It lacks context, it lacks explanatory power. We would do as well, if not better, to note that every traffic fatality/injury involves speed: If the car wasn’t moving, no one would have died/been injured.

But I was curious as to how Ian Walker, after putting his research into the world and subsequently being asked these sorts of questions, undergoing these sorts of debates, ultimately felt himself about what his findings (at least on several stretches on English roads) had revealed.

Over to you, Dr. Walker:

“The apparently simple query ‘Do bicycle helmets work?’ turns out to be the most complex question I have ever encountered. Since I published my own small contribution to the nightmarish tangle of helmet research a couple of years ago, I have read and answered hundreds of emails on the subject from interested – in both senses of the word – people. I am grateful to Tom for giving me this chance to summarize a few of my disjointed thoughts on the matter.


Posted on Wednesday, October 1st, 2008 at 4:01 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:

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage:

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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



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