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Earlier this month, the National Safety Council reported that more than 42,000 people in the U.S. died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020, representing an 8% increase over 2019. This came as a surprise, since people across the country traveled 13% fewer miles by car because of coronavirus-related lockdowns.However, as pointed out by Bloomberg City Lab, the 8% increase is actually a 24% increase on a per-mile-traveled basis — the highest year-over-year jump in 96 years.
In its article, the publication placed the blame on “outdated, industry-written laws” that “lock in street designs that encourage excessive speed.” Another factor singled out were the types of vehicles that we drive, which tend to be those known to be deadly to non-drivers — especially pedestrians.
“People drive the speeds the roads “tell” them to drive. And they drive the cars that are allowed to be built,” the article reads. “[And] U.S. laws dictate both.” Though people’s need for speed, as well as having a distracted driving crisis, they do not fully explain the country’s fatality rate. Take for example Germany, who’s speeding and widespread cell phone use has not resulted in the death rates seen in the U.S. German traffic deaths fell 12% in 2020, which tracks the country’s 11% decrease in traffic volume.
As noted by Bloomberg, U.S. road designs rule first and prioritize speeding, and the design manual known as the “Green Book” plays a large role. The Green Book has been used for decades by the federal government, all 50 states, and countless municipalities, and yet it was written without public input by traffic engineers at the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). The manual requires lanes that are too wide, which results in encouraging cars to drive faster, and practically ignores pedestrians and bikers altogether.
Moreover, codes also mandate overly wide streets, requiring 20 feet of unobstructed path for new or significantly improved streets. And yet, city residents can’t get involved in drafting fire codes. These are primarily drafted by an organization of building code officials that recently sued a group who put the code online, so people could actually read it. Despite efforts in some cities to reduce fire-code-mandated street widths, these codes dominate street design nationally.
Then there is the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), which governs signalization and speed limits. Published by the Federal Highway Administration, Bloomberg recognizes that though problematic, it’s a better alternative to the private rule-making of the Green Book and fire codes. The problem with it, according to the publication, is that the MUTCD recommends setting speed limits that match the 85th percentile of actual free-flowing traffic, rounded up to the nearest five miles per hour. What this results in is drivers breaking the law by speeding, which then justifies raising speed limits even more. The MUTCD also reportedly standardizes signaling and pavement markings that often prioritize cars over all other road users.
And vehicle design regulations don’t make things any better. U.S. safety regulators prioritize the people inside the vehicle, largely ignoring everyone else. “Unregulated, car manufacturers have flooded the market with oversized SUVs and pickup trucks with huge frontal surfaces and poor forward vision — design features that would fail to meet Europe’s more stringent vehicle safety standards, and that make such machines more dangerous for pedestrians and those in smaller cars,” notes Bloomberg.
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), SUVs have contributed to the 81% increase in pedestrian fatalities between 2009 and 2018. Also, roads are deadlier for bikers and pedestrians than they have been in 30 years. Black and Native people, as well as the elderly are disproportionately represented among these fatalities. “Our laws value drivers and car passengers over everyone else who uses our roads,” the article argues.
Among the things the article argues can help to revise the U.S.’ regulatory culture include: