Archive for the ‘Traffic Enforcement’ Category

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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A Don’s Education

Cambridge classicist Mary Beard goes back to school, for speeding, as part of an “educate not prosecute” campaign. The evidence on these programs’ value is shaky, but Beard seemed somewhat positive about the experience (whether that translates into behavioral change is always an open question).

From her post:

What is more I did learn quite a lot.

For a start I had no idea that only 4% of traffic accidents in the UK took place on motorways (and accounted for only 6% of the road deaths). Nor did I realise quite how much the level of road casualties had fallen over the last 70 or so years — it is now a third of the 7500 that it was (so estimates have it) in the 1930s. In fact one of the heroes of the morning was Leslie Hore-Belisha, not only the inventor of the Belisha Beacon in 1935, but of the Highway Code too, the driving test and various road markings, that are now taken for granted.

Most striking of all was the stuff about the “hard shoulder”. I knew that it is the most dangerous place to be on the motorway. I hadnt realised that average time between stopping on the hard shoulder and being involved in an “incident” was 26 minutes. Can that really be true?

Posted on Friday, March 20th, 2009 at 9:24 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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One Lane to Rule Them

A corollary benefit of primary seat-belt laws. Via the sadly soon-to-be-virtual Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

“A commuter who put a homemade dummy in the passenger seat to sneak into the car pool lane was caught Wednesday near Seattle. But it wasn’t because a cop realized the passenger was fake. Instead, the State Patrol trooper noticed the dangling belt buckle on the passenger side and suspected a seat belt violation.

Patrol spokeswoman Christina Martin told The Herald of Everett that the driver acknowledged trying to beat traffic by using the HOV lane.

He created his passenger by draping a rain jacket over plastic piping, topping it off with a Halloween mask of Gandalf, the “Lord of the Rings” wizard, a beard and a baseball cap.”

(via Roadguy)

Posted on Wednesday, March 18th, 2009 at 8:32 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Putting a Woman on a Pedestal

They may simply be there to “preserve the existing disorder,” but Rome, for the first time, is adding female traffic cops in the Piazza Venezia. But, as happened in Mexico City with “the swans,” their appearance may augur a reduction in corruption and an improvement in traffic safety.

Posted on Tuesday, March 17th, 2009 at 6:38 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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15 Years, 30 Days

I was intrigued by two recent news items.

One, from Utah:

Calling texting while driving a crime, a judge Tuesday ordered a Tremonton man to spend 30 days in the Cache County jail as part of his sentence for two counts of negligent homicide.

Reggie Shaw was 19 when his Chevy Tahoe veered into oncoming traffic on State Road 30 near Logan, causing the deaths of Cache Valley residents Jim Furfaro, 38, of Logan and Keith O’Dell, 50, of North Logan.

Though Shaw told Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Bart Rindlisbacher at the scene on Sept. 22, 2006, that he had not been texting, subpoenaed cell phone records show Shaw and a friend exchanged 11 text messages in the moments before the accident, according to Cache County Prosecutor Don Linton.

[as an aside, note the passive tense here, rather common in newspaper reporting: it was his Tahoe ‘that veered,’ deaths ‘were caused.’ Not, ‘he swerved, killing the two drivers.’]

Another, via the Washington Post:

A Woodbridge man who drove the wrong way, drunk, on Route 1 last year and slammed head-on into another car at 96 mph, killing the driver, was sentenced to 15 years in prison yesterday by a Fairfax County judge.

[less passive tense here…]

We have here two cases of driving in the presence of activities shown to cause impairment. In both cases, people died. Yet the sentencing gulf between the two cases is huge. One obvious difference is that texting while driving has yet to be made an actual crime (though I predict it increasingly will be), and I imagine this must influence the sentencing; I am not sure what the usual sentence is for “negligent homicide” — but then again, isn’t a DUI-caused fatality also a “negligent homicide”? How would we feel about a 30-day sentence with some community service for a drunk driver who killed two people? Perhaps the ages of both perpetrators also came into play. But one has to wonder about the major discrepancy in sentencing.


Posted on Thursday, March 12th, 2009 at 7:05 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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The Dubious Disctinction Between “Good” and “Bad” Drivers on Cell-Phones

I was bothered by this assertion in an editorial on cell-phones in cars:

Motorists who drive carelessly while on the phone — we’ve all seen them — are a hazard and should be penalized. The same is true for those who drive carelessly while operating their CD players, adjusting their GPS devices or fussing with their kids.

But a motorist driving attentively at a lawful speed on a safe, straight stretch of Interstate 5 should not be pulled over because of a telephone conversation.

Yes, obviously people driving recklessly, whether distracted or not, should be pulled over. But to assert that a motorist “driving attentively” on a “safe, straight stretch” of road while talking on a phone is beyond concern is a gross oversimplification of the emerging science.

It reminds me of a night, many years ago, when I was much younger and much more car-dependent (two conditions I do not long to return to), when I drove home in what can only be called a state of substantial intoxication — something I only became dimly aware of a number of minutes into the trip. Somewhat panicked, I rigorously drove the speed limit, and locked my attention on the road — “a safe, straight stretch” (I’ve said it before, “safe” is a relative term; the only objectively safe road is the one that’s never traveled).

In any case, by any external measure, I was just another law-abiding, prudent motorist. The fact was, however, that my physical impairments began with the first drink of the night and only got progressively worse, and that I very likely may have not been able to stop in the face of an unexpected “path intrusion,” or not seen a pedestrian in the crosswalk in time to react, etc. But I would not have been readily aware of the scale of this performance decrement, as all my attention was on keeping between the lanes and going the speed limit — which is not necessarily the same thing as safe, attentive driving. Of course, I may indeed have been drifting across lanes; but this feedback is not something always immediately apparent to drunk drivers.

This is the condition that cell-phone conversation presents. Even if there is not obvious “fiddling” with the phone (at least the person is aware of their distraction in that case) or drifting across lanes, there is still some portion of mental workload — higher than one would devote to a billboard, a passenger, or the radio — being dedicated to the task. The driver may still have enough left to operate the car in a seemingly effective manner, but it still leaves open the very good possibility that their performance would be impaired if something out of the ordinary were to happen. To our minds, we may be driving fine, by a certain measure, but just as we are fully unable to measure our own extent of distraction (often, one only realizes this afterward, as the miles traveled while talking have suddenly vanished from recollection, a sign of cognitive shedding), we also cannot predict how that distraction would leave us equipped to react to something unexpected. A car traveling the speed limit and staying within lanes is safe until the driver rear-ends someone who has unexpectedly come to a stop on the highway.

I am reminded of another good excerpt from a paper I referenced earlier this week, by Peter Hancock and colleagues, “On the philosophical foundations of driving distraction and the distracted driver,” in a recent book titled Driver Distraction: Theory, Effects, and Mitigation:

Driving, as we have seen, is a satisficing task. It is one in which all drivers frequently, and on certain occasions necessarily, fail to maintain their attention toward the “correct” source of attraction. Infrequently and unpredictably, these momentary failures encounter the precise environmental circumstances that induce collision. In Haddon’s terms, we “meet the tiger.” Society is content, in general, to chastise those unlucky drivers who find themselves involved in these rare collisions. This does not, of course, exempt those drivers who consciously make the decision to neglect to neglect their responsibilities. However, if collisions became more frequent by several orders of magnitude, society would not single out these ‘bad’ individuals but would seek to make corrections at a systemic level. However, we have been generally content to ratify our collective, institutional schizophrenia, which ‘blames’ the ‘bad’ drivers while encouraging the production of ever greater numbers of technologies that inevitably redirect drivers’ attention from the ever more satisficed task of vehicle control.

The editorial I referred to in the opening sentences wants to make this easy distinction between the “good” and “bad” driver. But it is not so clear; there are many “good” intoxicated drivers who become “bad” only when their blood is analyzed at a crash scene. There is also the problem of ethics: The individual driver may think talking on the phone is a good idea because they’ve done it “all the time” and they do it safely. But what is the moral consequence of participating in a behavior with known negative consequences for driving performance to other people? Already, just by getting behind the wheel, we are doing one of the few things in our life by which we easily have the capability to take someone’s life, accidentally or not; what is the ethical dimension to raising that likelihood, even marginally?

There is always the rejoinder, but why haven’t we seen a big increase in crashes and fatalities with phone use? The first point is there have been any number of fatalities already attributed to cell-phones; the second point is that most people do not talk most of the time, leaving more aware drivers to account for others’ mistakes — as a generation raised on Twitter hits the road it’s anyone’s guess. Another issue is that, perhaps through sheer luck, a majority of drunks make it home every night (should we thus do away with DUI?) And cars of course keep getting safer, which is no consolation to anyone outside the car, a condition common to most of us, even in America. In any case, this line of inquiry misstates the problem. The real question is not why there hasn’t been an increase but why we haven’t seen a great decline in this country (the recent small decline one was mostly due to economic factors) of traffic fatalities? Yes, driving per mile has become ever safer, but per-head of population the number killed is stubbornly similar to decades past. With each increase in car and road safety we seem to find new ways to make our own performance a touch more dangerous.

Posted on Friday, February 27th, 2009 at 10:19 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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What Difference Does 5 MPH Make?

For my money, the U.K. Department for Transport’s Think campaign is the most thought-provoking road safety campaign in the world today (not that there’s much competition in the U.S., which long ago lost its lead as the world’s safest driving nation). This video shows how a small difference in speed, barely perceived by the driver of a large well-insulated modern car, can make all the difference to someone outside the car — not just reaction time but impact speed.

Of course, PSAs and “raising awareness,” by themselves, for all the good intentions, have been shown in the field of road safety, and various other public health campaigns, to be vastly ineffective. You need enforcement (not continued slaps on the wrist for people like this), negative financial incentives, the changing of social norms, etc. etc.

(via Streetsblog)

Posted on Tuesday, February 17th, 2009 at 2:56 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Traffic Culture and Corruption: A Few More Thoughts

Why does traffic behave differently in different places? Why does driving in Cairo set the nerves on edge, while in Munich people stoically wait for crossing signals, even at minor intersections?

One’s first impulse may be to reach for cultural explanations. In Chinese cities, where queuing can seem rampantly disorderly (something the government endeavored to correct ahead of the Olympics), perhaps it’s only natural that negotiating an intersection can seem so trying. Go to Denmark, with its famously self-effacing and polite residents, and the highways are largely marked by scrupulous lane discipline and a lack of horn honking.

Or maybe it’s urban density, and the vehicle mix. Delhi is more crowded than New York or London, packing some 48 different modes of transport onto its streets. In sprawling Los Angeles, there is essentially one mode — the car — and plenty of wide (if congested) streets to drive on. How could the former not seem more “chaotic,” at least to the uninitiated?

Perhaps economics has an answer. The American economist George McDowell, using as an opener John F.A. Taylor’s comment that the “market is… a traffic in claims, not in things” — i.e., it’s not only commodities per se but relationships between people and things — goes on to postulate a theory that a country’s traffic behavior has something to do with its market structure.

China, McDowell argues, has historically had a mixed economic structure — some state-owned enterprises, but also a “long entrepreneurial tradition.” In the latter system the advertised price on a product is often just a suggestion; the real price is whatever is agreed upon. If you pay too much, the “advantage” goes to the shopkeeper. And so it is with Chinese traffic: Turning, merging, yielding and the like are opportunities to be gained or lost. If one is cut off, one accepts that they have been bested in this one-time transaction.

Contrast that to the U.S., where being cut off might bring on a voluble burst of “road rage” by the offended party. Fairness and justice are prized (if also violated). As with traffic, McDowell notes, Americans view markets not as “free” but as “open,” governed by formal and informal rules, where “opportunistic behavior is expected and even encouraged but within a strict set of parameters.”

As a rough rule of thumb, then, one might say if you’re driving in a place where bargaining over transactions is expected, there will be a good deal of bargaining on the road. If you’re in a place where the set price is always paid, you might expect traffic behavior to also follow these implicit top-down rules.


Posted on Friday, February 13th, 2009 at 8:56 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Liberty City

A few months ago, I was pretty intensively playing Grand Theft Auto IV. As an urbanist, I was curious about its immersive, complex representation of the city — or maybe I just wanted to blow things up after a long day’s work.

Naturally I took an interest in the traffic life of “Liberty City,” which, like the New York that is its inspiration, is a multi-modal mix of pedestrians, cars, subways, motorcyclists, taxis — though, curiously, no cyclists (I thought it might be a programming issue, but there are motorcycles). Its protagonist, the amoral Niko Bellic, presumably not in the country legally, is also presumably an unlicensed driver (that’s the least of his legal violations, of course). At first, I drove quite cautiously, as I thought the omnipresent police might nab me for violating red lights, or even speeding. I soon learned, however, that traffic infractions were not part of the Liberty City PD’s bailiwick — even though, of course, a routine traffic stop might have netted them a gangster. In fact, you pretty much had to commit full-scale mass pedestrian vehicle homicide to even attract the attention of the police. For Niko the driver, Liberty City was pretty much a place where he was at liberty to disregard any rule of the road.

Hmmm… a city where one can routinely drive at high speeds, even in crowded urban environments, with little repercussion, where even striking a pedestrian will get you little more than a few pointed questions from the police (and in fact it may have even been the police that did it), where traffic signals are treated as optional… This is where the line between Liberty City and New York City really does get blurry.

To wit, via Streetsblog:

A new report from Transportation Alternatives confirms what New York pedestrians and cyclists have been forced to accept as a fact of life: A high number of drivers speed through city streets, regardless of the potentially deadly consequences for those around them.

“Terminal Velocity: NYC’s Speeding Epidemic” shows that 39 percent of observed motorists were driving in excess of the 30 mph speed limit. Using radar guns and speed enforcement cameras at 13 locations, TA volunteers clocked speeds in excess of 60 mph in school zones and other areas with heavy pedestrian traffic.

Most speeding drivers were traveling between 31 and 40 mph. While a pedestrian struck at 30 mph has a 60 percent chance of surviving a collision, the likelihood of survival drops to 30 percent when the vehicle is moving at 40 mph, TA notes.

The name Liberty City was well chosen by GTA’s creators as its NYC stand-in, at least in the case of many Gotham drivers: You are at liberty to ignore laws. Of course, as John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community” is “to prevent harm to others.” There’s plenty of harm, let’s get exercised.

Posted on Thursday, February 12th, 2009 at 2:37 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Drivers Go Off the Rails in Wales

The BBC reports on how the number of “near misses” at level train crossings in Wales from drivers who do not see, or willfully disregard the warning, is rising. The harrowing footage is here.

In the case shown, “the motorist admitted dangerous driving, claiming he did not see the flashing lights and failed to notice cars waiting at the crossing.” The article also notes that: “The court heard that his wife had been so traumatised by the experience that the couple had had to move to a nearby town.”

What’s interesting about the report is the stiffness of the fine, higher than many I’ve seen in the U.S. for negligent driving that did cause a crash (this was just a hair’s breadth away from that happening in this case, judging by the video). Of course, with train crossings, one driver’s action could jeopardize the lives of many more people than in a typical traffic scenario (not to mention granting themselves a likely death sentence).

The motorist was given 12 month suspended sentence and ordered to do 180 hours of community service. He was also disqualified from driving, made to take an extended test after 12 months and fined £722.

I’m all for increased driver responsibility but one wonders what design or “nudge” solution there might be for improving safety at these crossings.

Posted on Tuesday, February 10th, 2009 at 8:34 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“Lost in the Shuffle”

Just following up on the recent multiple-offender DUI fatal crash in St. Louis, the Post-Dispatch writes:

The St. Louis County prosecutor wants to know why repeat DUI offender Newton M. Keene twice escaped potential felony charges that could have imprisoned him before his wrong-way car killed three people near Edwardsville last week.

It’s not certain that Keene would have gone to prison, Prosecuting Attorney Robert P. McCulloch said in response to a reporter’s questions. But he said, “You’d certainly expect that a conviction on either one of them would put him in jail for a significant period of time.”

Hazelwood Police Chief Carl Wolf said he could not explain why one of his officers — later fired for unrelated reasons — did not pursue prosecution of Newton when he refused a breath test there in early 2006.

“All I can say is it got lost in the shuffle,” Wolf said Friday. “It should have never happened. … I’m upset because none of the supervisors followed up on it.”

(Thanks Jack)

Posted on Monday, February 9th, 2009 at 11:58 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Red-Light and Speed Cameras As Expenditure Reducers

Road crashes cost at least $20 billion a year, leaving aside the human suffering.

So the usual accusations of “revenue raising” directed at Chief Minister Jon Stanhope’s proposal this month for point-to-point speed cameras was misplaced. Speed and red-light cameras are not revenue raisers. They are expenditure reducers. A large portion of the $20 billion comes out of government coffers: public hospitals, rescue; rehabilitation; disabled pensions and so on. The most recent Bureau of Transport Economics paper suggests about a fifth of the cost is borne by government

To the extent speed cameras reduce speeding and road crashes, they save government money. To take the argument to the extreme, if speed cameras were so blanketed as to ensure total compliance with speed limits, they would raise no revenue. But they would cut the road toll by at least a third – a saving of more than $1 billion a year to Australian taxpayers.

An interesting way of reframing, from a good piece by Australian journalist — the figures he cites are from Australia — Crispin Hull titled “A New Attitude to Speeding Needed.” (or after the jump)

(Horn honk to Michael Paine)

Posted on Monday, February 9th, 2009 at 10:43 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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A Fine Line

I’m all for stiffer traffic penalties — and much of Costa Rica’s new law is commendable (and tries to treat the corruption issue) — but I did find a particularly curious bit of fine print:

“Other controversial measures include an $82 fine for a taxi or bus driver who insults his passengers.”

One wonders where something like this comes from — is there a rampant plague of offensive bus/taxi drivers? What constitutes an insult (do we know one when we hear one)? Who exactly will decide to declare a citation (maybe armed ‘bus marshals’?) And why $82? (in the U.S. you’d have to tack on a few thousand bucks for emotional pain and suffering).

Posted on Friday, February 6th, 2009 at 9:26 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Road Recidivism

Via the St. Louis Post Dispatch comes this:

A wrong-way driver caused a crash that killed two adults and a boy early today and left a teen-age girl critically injured.

A random ‘accident’? Hardly.

The wrong-way driver’s history of driving trouble goes back years.

Shana Alexander, a spokeswoman with the Missouri Department of Revenue, recited a long list of administrative actions to convictions in court. He has a 1994 conviction for excessive blood alcohol; a 1995 conviction for driving while intoxicated; a 1997 conviction for driving while suspended or revoked; a 1997 conviction for DWI; and a 2001 conviction for driving while revoked. The most serious one, the 1997 DWI conviction, was out of St. Louis County.

This is the unfortunate reality with traffic enforcement. Even if you stiffen the penalties, you can’t physically restrain someone from getting behind the wheel (outside of putting ignition interlocks on every vehicle). Unless, of course, they’re in jail, where this criminal must now surely be heading, albeit too late.

(Thanks Jack)

Posted on Thursday, February 5th, 2009 at 11:40 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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‘A Culture of Accountability on Our Roads’

A bill in Maryland looks to fill that “big gaping hole” between felony manslaughter and a minor traffic ticket:

Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons, D-Montgomery, the bill’s chief sponsor, called it “cosmically absurd” that a driver can speed, run a red light and kill someone and not face criminal prosecution because his actions did not meet the high standard required to prove vehicular manslaughter. He said his measure would not criminalize “ordinary negligence,” such as taking your eyes off the road momentarily, but would be targeted at more serious deviations from reasonable care.

The legislation will create “a culture of accountability on our roads,” Simmons said.

Hear, hear.

This parallels a similar move in Washington State.

A bill to be introduced in the state legislature would make it a crime to kill or seriously injure a person with a car while violating a traffic law—a response to the killing of City Council aide Tatsuo Nakata by driver Ephraim Schwartz, who struck Nakata in a crosswalk while talking on his cell phone.

“The problem we’re trying to address is that there’s a big gap between a civil infraction”—a traffic ticket—”and a felony,” says City Attorney Tom Carr, who’s pushing for the legislation. “It’s my view that if you speed regularly through school zones and 99 percent of the time nothing happens, but one percent of the time you seriously injure somebody, that should be more serious” than a mere traffic violation, Carr says.

Posted on Thursday, January 29th, 2009 at 9:17 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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Study: Hummer Drivers Rack Up Most Tickets

Quality Planning, whose previous studies appear in Traffic, has a new one out looking at which vehicles draw the most traffic tickets.

Number one? Hummer. (We knew this crapulous ride, a malignant tumor on the flatlining patient that is GM, had to be tops in something, given that it’s got some of the worst gas mileage on the road and, according to Consumer Reports, is consistently ranked one of the worst cars in America — poor handling, no visibility, frequent visits to the dealer, etc.).

“The sense of power that Hummer drivers derive from their vehicle may be directly correlated with the number of violations they incur,” president Raj Bhat said in statement. “Or perhaps Hummer drivers, by virtue of their driving position, are less likely to notice road hazards, signs, pedestrians or other drivers.”

Perhaps equally unsurprising, Buicks — the quintessential ‘granny’ car, oddly transmogrified into a favorite elite coach in China — rank among those vehicles getting the fewest infractions.

Posted on Wednesday, January 21st, 2009 at 8:33 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“A Depraved Indifference to Human Life”

Required viewing for all drivers, via Streetsblog. I’m amazed at the way the defense attorney invokes Jeffrey Dahmer as the standard of a “murderer” — as if that crime somehow extends only to rampant, psychotic serial killers. Indeed, there is a risk in how drunk drivers are often portrayed, a subject I’ll return to in a later post: Presenting them as marginal social reprobates (and not, say, first-time offenders straight out of college) may encourage us to think that our own drinking and driving is something apart, something we can manage, something that would not end the same way.

Note that the presence of the DriveCam camera (a technology I describe in the book, though for its driver feedback properties) aided in the crash investigation.

Posted on Thursday, January 15th, 2009 at 1:56 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“I didn’t see any brake lights or emergency flashers”

July 15, 2008 -- An accident involving a tractor-trailer on Highway 40 west of Interstate 270 killed three people and injured 15.

The National Safety Council calls for a full ban on cell phones while driving, a position I in principle agree with (I’d rather it just became the norm rather than a law but sometimes the former requires the latter):

“There is a huge misperception with the public that it’s O.K. if they are using a hands-free phone,” said Janet Froetscher, the council’s president and chief executive. “It’s the same challenge we had with seat belts and drunk driving — we’ve got to get people thinking the same way about cellphones.”

And to give you a little nudge in that direction, here’s a piece from today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch on a truck crash that killed three people:

“Authorities have only described Knight as being inattentive, but a Missouri Highway Patrol report has revealed he admitted to an investigator that he was distracted by a cell phone.

In the report, Knight is quoted as saying, “I reached across the dash to get my cell phone. I flipped the phone open, looked back at traffic, and I was there right at the last car (in the line of cars stuck in traffic). I didn’t see any brake lights or emergency flashers. After I hit the first car, I just remember holding the steering wheel and seeing cars going to my left and right.”

(thanks Jack!)

Posted on Tuesday, January 13th, 2009 at 2:42 pm by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“Speed in and of itself is not reckless”

More Rumsfeldian parsings from the bizarre world of traffic law:

“Jockers said Danks was driving 59 mph in a 45-mph zone – or 14 mph over the speed limit – but speed alone is not sufficient to level a charge of vehicular homicide, he said. If Danks had been weaving through traffic or changing lanes before the collision, he might have been charged with a more serious offense, Jockers said.

Given that the chances that a pedestrian will live or die when struck by a car rises exponentially with speed, it seems strange to leave it out of the equation.

“His overall driving pattern did not rise to the level of recklessness, which is what you have to have to prove if you want to charge someone with vehicular homicide,” Jockers said. “Speed in and of itself is not reckless.”

Note the the “millionaire DWI killer,” in another case, was said to be going 60 mph in Manhattan. Good thing he didn’t change lanes — they would have thrown the book at him!

Posted on Monday, January 12th, 2009 at 6:11 am by: Tom Vanderbilt
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“Red Ink in the Rear-view Mirror”

There’s an obvious reason traffic fatalities have been dropping recently, in some cases to WW II levels: People can’t afford to do as much driving, or they’re paring back the ‘non-essential’ travel, or actually doing things like carpooling (and we should note that between 196 and 2001 the average number of annual miles traveled per American climbed some 180 percent). On the heels of a previous post, there may be another reason, as this St. Louis Post Dispatch piece notes:

“Thomas A. Garrett, an assistant vice president at the St. Louis Federal Reserve, knew he deserved to be ticketed while on vacation in Pennsylvania a few years ago. But, he wondered, are traffic tickets purely about public safety? Or are other factors at play? Many motorists probably have wondered the same thing sitting on a highway shoulder waiting for a citation. But Garrett turned it into a scholarly pursuit. He decided to conduct a study.

What Garrett and a co-author discovered provides yet another reason to hate a recession.

Traffic tickets go up significantly when local government revenue falls, they found. Their study showed for the first time evidence of how “local governments behave, in part, as though traffic tickets are a revenue tool to help offset periods of fiscal distress.”

No surprise, some ticketed motorists might say. But Garrett and co-author Gary A. Wagner, an economist at the University of Arkansas Little Rock, say they confirmed a connection that seemed to exist only in isolated anecdotes. And they put a number on it: Controlling for other factors, a 1 percentage point drop in local government revenue leads to a roughly .32 percentage point increase in the number of traffic tickets in the following year, a statistically significant connection.”

Posted on Monday, January 12th, 2009 at 5:56 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.

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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For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

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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