Many years after my accident, I was shocked to learn that the road where I was driving at the time, U.S. Route 27 in Butler County, Ohio, was considered one of the most dangerous highways in America. It had even been nicknamed the Highway to Heaven. I had always considered the accident a very personal encounter between two unlucky souls – the child who ran into the road and me behind the wheel – but had given little thought to the road safety conditions that contributed to the accident. Although bad luck certainly played a part, so did external factors such as a narrow road with no shoulders, heavy traffic, and a relatively high speed limit. Worst of all, in that rural environment, all the mailboxes were located on one side of the street, which forced residents to cross the highway in order to retrieve their mail.
Only after the residents of Butler County along with local elected officials advocated fiercely for road safety improvements did the State of Ohio allocate funds to mitigate the worst problems. Today, the road is wider, with better signage and a lower speed limit. The mailboxes now sit in front of their houses so no one has to cross this busy highway. Butler County residents still consider Route 27 to be dangerous, but it is better than it used to be.
My experience is just one example of the ways in which individual behavior combines with environmental conditions to increase or decrease risk and road safety. In addition to the choices that individuals make, collisions and crashes are affected by policies/laws and how they’re enforced, urban planning and design, engineering, education, social norms, and more.
Despite many years and many millions of dollars devoted to improving road safety, traffic fatalities are on the rise. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 37,500 people died in traffic accidents in the US in 2016, which was the highest number of fatalities since 2007. Distracted driving (e.g., texting, telephone conversations) surely contributes to this unfortunate trend. Too many people still neglect to fasten their seatbelts and/or drive after drinking. And the improved economy correlates with an increase in the miles that Americans drive each year, which leads to more crashes.
Recently, I have been learning about an international movement of sorts to improve road safety, especially for pedestrians and bicyclists. The organizations spearheading this movement are giving careful consideration to the external conditions that help to prevent traffic deaths. For example, the Vision Zero network seeks to “eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all.” Vision Zero advocates for steps that help to prevent accidents, such as reduced speed limits, better road design, improved pedestrian cross-walks, and education and awareness-building to promote safe driving.
Some of the people in the front lines of this kind of advocacy have lost loved ones in traffic crashes. CADIs, too, have much to contribute to this issue. If you’re interested, here are a few links:
National Complete Streets Coalition