Blame drivers for 94% of crashes or find fault in the larger system

Are drivers responsible for 94% of accidents? That is just one way to look at the issue:

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In 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Transportation, published a two-page memo declaring that “the critical reason, which is the last event in the crash causal chain, was assigned to the driver in 94% of the crashes.” The memo, which was based on the NHTSA’s own analysis of crashes, then offered a key caveat: “Although the critical reason is an important part of the description of events leading up to the crash, it is not intended to be interpreted as the cause of the crash.”…

Seeking to find a single cause for a crash is a fundamentally flawed approach to road safety, but it underpins much of American traffic enforcement and crash prevention. After a collision, police file a report, noting who violated traffic laws and generally ignoring factors like road and vehicle design. Insurance companies, too, are structured to hold someone accountable. Drivers aren’t the only ones who face such judgments. Following a crash, a pedestrian might be blamed for crossing a street where there is no crosswalk (even if the nearest one is a quarter mile away), and a cyclist might be cited for not wearing a helmet (although a protected bike lane would have prevented the crash entirely). News stories reinforce these narratives, with stories limited to the driver who was speeding or the pedestrian who crossed against the light…

With responsibility falling on those directly involved in a crash, it’s unsurprising that so many highway-safety efforts revolve around education campaigns, assuming that if people were just more careful, we’d all be okay. Officials at the NHTSA and state DOTs pour millions of dollars into these programs, but their benefits seem modest at best. Officials “see their role as trying to cajole people on the roads to make smarter decisions,” Seth LaJeunesse, a senior research associate at the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center, told me. “Wear a seat belt, don’t be drunk when driving, and signal appropriately. I think it’s misguided. After all, who’s going to address structural problems, if it’s just people being stupid out there on the road?”…

With the infrastructure bill now signed into law, the federal government has a chance to rethink its approach and messaging. Dumping the dangerous 94 percent myth would be a good start; deemphasizing pointless traffic-safety PR campaigns would help too. Encouraging state and local transportation agencies—not just law enforcement—to investigate crashes, which New York City is now doing, would be even better. What we need most is a reexamination of how carmakers, traffic engineers, and community members—as well as the traveling public—together bear responsibility for saving some of the thousands of lives lost annually on American roadways. Blaming human error alone is convenient, but it places all Americans in greater danger.

Put together a society based around driving and a cultural emphasis on individualism and you have this situation. Is the individual operator responsible or a system that puts people in large vehicles traveling at fast speeds?

It is less clear from this piece how to view the system as a whole in order to improve the safety of roads. There are a lot of pieces that different actors have highlighted over the years. Fewer vehicles on the road? More room for pedestrians and bicyclists? More safety features in vehicles? Lower speeds? All of these could help but they would each threaten the current system which attempts to move as many vehicles as quickly as possible.

The approach many government and business actors seem to take at the moment toward this are attempts at incremental progress. Who would put all of these pieces together in a short amount of time, especially if individual drivers are willing to take responsibility? Americans seem fairly content with traffic fatalities and pedestrian deaths.

Wrestling with the ongoing – and increasing – numbers of pedestrian deaths in the United States

After a pedestrian death in her neighborhood, one writer considers the issue in the United States:

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My neighborhood isn’t unique. So far this year, 15 pedestrians have been killed by drivers in the nation’s capital, and total traffic fatalities are up to 37-the highest number since 2008. This is all despite Mayor Muriel Bowser’s goal to end traffic deaths by 2024 as part of the Vision Zero program signed on to by leaders of D.C. and other major U.S. cities. The District Department of Transportation has made some changes to protect walkers and cyclists, such as reducing speed limits and installing more bike lanes. Ironically, total traffic fatalities have increased steadily since the program began.

The same trend is reflected in cities across America. Part of the increase in pedestrian deaths is probably because our vehicles are bigger than ever. “Our pickup trucks and SUVs are gigantic compared to the sizes they used to be,” giving drivers less visibility and a greater sense of security, which makes them more aggressive on the road, says Rohit Aggarwala, a fellow at the urban Tech Hub at Cornell Tech and the former director of long-term planning and sustainability for New York City. During the pandemic’s early days, as fewer Americans drove to work or school, it seemed safe to assume that fewer pedestrians would die Instead, fatalities have jumped. Conclusive research isn’t out yet, but the increase is likely at least in part due to a drop in traffic congestion and an ensuing increase in speed: “People were still walking around their neighborhoods during lockdown, and you had a [small] number of people on the streets driving very, very fast,” Aggarwala told me. Older adults, people walking in low-income areas, and Black and Native Americans are all overrepresented in pedestrian-death statistics.

Most pedestrian deaths are preventable, and experts believe that the solutions are straightforward. Aggarwala and his team at Cornell Tech are pushing for three major changes to America’s driving infrastructure: more robust traffic-camera enforcement, to capture not just speeding but all kinds of moving violations; road redesign that would decrease lane size and add speed bumps to nudge drivers to slow down; and finally, upping the standards for vehicle safety. Car manufacturers in Europe are required to test cars for pedestrian impact; they design hoods to slope downward so that drivers can see anyone who might wander into the road. American automakers could do the same, or add pedestrian-detection systems or speed limiters to cars. Many of these changes would not only make roads safer for pedestrians but also could reduce police violence at the same time. “The U.S. hasn’t considered any of this,” Aggarwala said. “We have a tradition of focusing on vehicle safety as only being about the occupant.”

This is an ongoing issue as long as roads are primarily for cars and vehicles. The priority for decades in the United States has been to make roads optimal for vehicles. Pedestrians and other street level activity is, on the whole, not as important.

When I read this, I thought about the efforts to include equipment in all new cars that would test to see if the drivers was driving impaired. How did this come about? Drunk driving has been a recognized issue for years with organized groups making sure it was on the public’s radar screen. Is a social movement against pedestrian deaths and promoting pedestrian safety necessary to make significant changes? The solutions might be straightforward but the political and societal will is lacking.

Driverless trucks, dark stores, and getting groceries

How Americans get their groceries might be on the edge of a big change with the introduction of autonomous vehicles and dark stores into the mix:

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Walmart and Silicon Valley start-up Gatik said that, since August, they’ve operated two autonomous box trucks — without a safety driver — on a 7-mile loop daily for 12 hours. The Gatik trucks are loaded with online grocery orders from a Walmart fulfillment center called a “dark store.” The orders are then taken to a nearby Walmart Neighborhood Market grocery store in Bentonville, Arkansas, where Walmart is headquartered…

Walmart, the nation’s biggest seller of grocery items, is testing the Gatik autonomous vehicles as part of its transition to a “hub and spoke” model for grocery delivery where dark stores are closer to the consumer and used to serve several retail stores. Walmart said the use of automated vehicles will also allow store associates more freedom to perform “higher level” tasks, including picking and packing online orders and customer assistance.

“The old architecture of delivery where you have a giant distribution center four or five hours away from the end consumer does not work anymore. Grocers are forced to set up these fulfilment centers close to the customer, and once you get close to the customer you have to shrink the size of your warehouse,” Narang said. “As the size shrinks there is a growing need for doing repeated trips from the fulfillment centers to the pickup points. That’s where we come in.”

The Kroger supermarket chain has tested autonomous delivery with start-up Nuro since 2018 and said it’s now completed thousands of “last mile” deliveries in the Houston, Texas area. Kroger is also using automated warehouses to launch online grocery delivery in Florida and other states where it does not have brick and mortar locations.

The driverless trucks are interesting in their own right. The United States needs a lot of trucks to move goods all over the place. They are a familiar sight on both local roads and highways. Would it matter much to the typical driver if the semi next to them had no driver?

Additionally, it would be worth hearing more about fulfillment centers/”dark stores.” Where are they located? How do they operate? How many of them are needed in a sizable metropolitan region to fulfill orders? Depending on some of these answers, this could change where warehouses are located (can they be as concentrated, such as in Will County?) How much more efficient is this system compared to now? Somewhere, a particular community could figure out how to maximize dark stores and reap the benefits.

The boom and bust RV cycles of Elkhart

The latest rankings in the Emerging Housing Markets Index has Elkhart, Indiana at the top of the list:

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Small U.S. cities dominated The Wall Street Journal/Realtor.com Emerging Housing Markets Index in the third quarter, as high housing costs and remote-work opportunities drive many home buyers to seek out more living and outdoor space…

Elkhart, Ind., which bills itself as the RV capital of the world because its region is the country’s leading manufacturer of recreational vehicles, topped the housing index this quarter, followed by Rapid City, S.D., Topeka, Kan., Raleigh, N.C., and Jefferson City, Mo…

The recreational-vehicle industry is a major player in Elkhart’s economy. The Covid-19 pandemic spurred more RV demand, as households wanted to travel while keeping their distance from others. Wholesale RV shipments in the first eight months of 2021 rose 53.8% from the same period in 2020, according to the RV Industry Association…

The median home-sale price in Elkhart County rose 12.3% in August from a year earlier to $209,900, according to the Indiana Association of Realtors. There were 163 homes for sale that month, down from 220 a year earlier.

I am glad that Elkhart appears to be doing well at the moment. Having lived nearby for five years, the area has a lot to offer and economic development would be welcomed.

At the same time, it was not so long ago that Elkhart faced a difficult time. When the economy is not doing so well, such as in the late 2000s with a burst housing bubble, fewer people had money for RVs. Demand shrunk. Jobs disappeared. Before that, this area and South Bend were home to numerous manufacturers who went out of business or left. The homes have been cheaper here for a long time because few people want to move in.

It is good that this community in the Rust Belt at least has the opportunity to at times benefit from upticks in RV sales. Such industries and jobs could leave completely. But, having so many fates tied to one industry that can go up and down is trying in the long run. Numerous communities in the United States have looked to diversify their economic base – see the recent rush to add tech companies to their portfolios – even as they might have local economies based around a few companies or a few sectors. RVs may sell well one day and then conditions change and demand drops or new technology moves in. May Elkhart take some of this positive momentum and add to lineup of industries and services.

Familiar road trip highways, Part Two: always seeing sites from the same perspectives

After two day trips on a recent weekend, I thought of what happens when you drive on the same highways many times. While yesterday I considered what the familiarity with roads and sites allows, today I briefly discuss what a slightly different route might bring. Two examples come to mind.

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The first example comes from the way I have approached the city of Chicago. For most of my life, this involved traveling east on the Congress Expressway. This meant that we passed through particular suburbs and neighborhoods, saw the skyline from a particular angle, and were in a particular relationship to the sun.

With a move after college east of Chicago, for a while my driving angle to the city changed dramatically. Now we approached via the Skyway and then either the Dan Ryan or South Lake Shore Drive. We saw different parts of the suburbs and city, the skyline of the same buildings looked different, and then shone from a different spot. The similar sites appeared quite different from a different highway just miles away. Chicago from the south is a different place than Chicago from the west, even from a fast-moving car.

A second example. Interstate highways often offer the ability to go around population centers. This speeds up driving. The city off in the distance is reduced to a set of tall buildings and/or landmarks that can be viewed from a distance.

One time, we took the business route through a small big city instead of skirting around its edges. We ended up in the same place and it took a little more time but we had a very different view of the city. Now we could see strip malls and residences. The big buildings from the distance looked even bigger close up. There was a sense of human activity rather than whatever life can be observed at 70+ miles per hour.

Familiar highways present opportunities but they limit what can be seen. The same familiarity that can contribute to an enjoyable road trip stop drivers from new angles.

Familiar road trip highways, Part One: going into travel autopilot

On a recent weekend, I made two separate day trips. Each sojourn required driving on highways in and out of the Chicago region that I have traveled on, either as passenger or driver, at least dozens of times. Because of its location and its transportation infrastructure, the Chicago area has numerous highways plus a good number of interesting locations within several hours.

One feature of such drives is the ability to go into a kind of travel autopilot. These roads are familiar. You know the sights. In the Midwestern landscape, there may be relatively variation in scenery.

To me, this eases the drive. Yes, hours may pass but you have done this before and you can get it through it again. On these routes, I have encountered clear skies, dark, rain, snow, and light traffic and heavy traffic. The drive is still roughly the same.

This may seem boring to some. What is the point of such a drive? Why not just go a lot faster and get there as soon as possible?

However, the familiar roads and scenery can open up room for other activities. Enjoying music is easier when the roads are familiar. So is good conversation or listening to an audiobook or doing some contemplating. Because what is going on outside the vehicle is not much of a distraction, many of the things that people celebrate about road trips are possible.

Tomorrow, what can happen when you are on a slightly different highway near what you thought were familiar locations.

Global supply chain problems lead to 25 mile train backup at Chicago area railyard?

As concerns mount about global supply chains, I found one Chicago connection involving the region’s important role in the nation’s infrastructure:

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In Chicago, one of the country’s largest railyards – the size of 500 football fields – was at one point backed up for 25 miles…Cities like Chicago and San Antonio – the busiest international land gateway in the country – have been particularly affected by the bottlenecks.

Chicago is an important railroad center for the United States. With multiple intermodal facilities, helpful nearby highways and airports, numerous warehouses, and port options, many freight trains carrying a lot of important material pass through the region.

With that said, where exactly do the train delays in the Chicago region fit within the larger supply chain problems? Most of the news I have seen on the topic emphasizes the problems at major coastal ports where ships are waiting to be unloaded. If the ports could move through the goods already waiting, would they simply then get stuck in Chicago and similar locations?

If the problems in the Chicago region are confined to railyards and intermodal facilities, I would guess most people in the region have little reason to know about the issue. They may notice empty shelves in stores but not know that some of the goods might just be a few miles away on a railroad track. Unless you happen to drive by such locations and see something – and some of them and their activity are visible from major highways – or hear something specific in the news, the supply chain issues could be anywhere.

If mathematicians addressed traffic problems

How would mathematicians solve traffic? Here are the suggestions from a 2020 book:

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All drivers need to be on the same navigation system. Cars can only be efficiently rerouted if instructions come from one center hub. One navigation system rerouting some drivers does not solve traffic jams.

Parking bans. Many urban roads are too narrow and cannot be physically widened. Traffic-flow models can indicate where parking spots should be turned into lanes.

Green lanes. For cities that want to increase electric car use, special lanes should be created for electric cars, providing an incentive for their use.

Digital twins. Traffic demands and available infrastructure can only be balanced with digital modeling that creates an entire “twin” of existing roadways. The software will be “an extremely useful thought tool in the hands of transport engineers.”

I have not read the book and this description is not long but it seems to depend on both understanding current and possible traffic flows through modeling. Often, Americans typically get more lanes added to roads – which then tend to fill up because there is more capacity and/or populations continue to grow.

I wonder how modeling would fit with other values underlying road and traffic decisions. A few examples:

  1. It might be better to have a centralized traffic and navigation hub. Is this technically feasible, would all car makers want to participate, and would there be privacy concerns?
  2. The politics of providing special lanes, whether for electric cars or high occupancy vehicles or bicycles, can get interesting. Americans often think the roadway should be for all users as opposed to particular users.
  3. The road system we have is the result of not just prioritizing efficiency but a whole host of actors and forces that includes privileging single-family homes (and generally keeping them away from busy roads) and highways in and out of major cities.

Walking to go somewhere or interact with people in contrast to walking suburban loops for exercise

Several months ago, I heard Andrew Peterson discuss “The Mystery of Making.” As he talked about places and suburbs, he mentioned something about walking: suburbanites walk in loops instead of having walks that go somewhere or involve interacting with people.

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As a suburbanite who walks both for exercise and in order to get to places, this is a thing. This could occur for multiple reasons:

  1. The design of suburbs limits walking options. Because of the emphasis on single-family homes and separating them from other uses, suburbanites may not be able to access many places as pedestrians. Can they get to schools, libraries, stores, workplaces?
  2. Perhaps suburbanites do not want to interact with many people. Suburbanites want to avoid conflict and interaction happens when people want it, not necessarily because of proximity or an orientation toward the community. Add headphones/earbuds/smartphones to this and pedestrians can be in their own waking cocoon.
  3. This sounds like a focus on walking as exercise as opposed to walking as a means to accomplish other worthwhile goals. Such a focus sounds like it would fit with American emphases on efficiency or productivity.
  4. If you really need to get somewhere, Americans often opt for a car, even when the route is walkable.

Having more walkable places would likely help here but it does not necessarily guarantee sociability or walking as transportation.

A suburban covered bridge hit 17 times in a year

Since a covered bridge in Long Grove reopened last August, truck drivers have hit the top of the bridge – with a clearance of 8’6″ – 17 times.

“We have made so many attempts to make the signs more visible, and it just keeps happening.” said Trustee Jennifer Michaud. “I live very close to the downtown, and I always know when the bridge is hit, because I see the helicopters come in. And I’m just, ‘Oh, another one.'”…

“People look at their phones and their phone tells them to go this way, and Google doesn’t know that they are driving a truck,” she said…

One option is an overhead detection system that would sense when a truck of a certain height approached the bridge and send a warning signal to the driver. Such a system would have recurring costs, including maintenance.

Another option could be to prohibit truck traffic.

This seems like a clash of transportation eras. The covered bridge is from an older era and this is part of its current appeal. The bridge invokes tradition and likely brings in curious visitors. The bridge is part of the local character. Here is how the Historic Downtown Long Grove puts it:

As one of the last iron trusses in The Chicago area, the single-lane Covered Bridge is so iconic, it’s quite literally become Long Grove’s emblem.   For over 100 years, the bridge has stood as the symbol of this crossroads town, one of the first in the country to pass a Historic Landmark Ordinance (in 1962) so that new construction need conform to its unique and charming style.  The Covered Bridge has transcended its historical role as a functional necessity and a tourist attraction into something of far greater significance – the Queen and Protector of this special place we call Long Grove just 35 miles NW of Chicago.

As the gateway to the historic downtown, the Covered Bridge is where Long Grove’s quaintness begins and ends.  Not only does the single-lane bridge buffer the town from being a major thoroughfare to Route 53, but there’s also something enchanting about waiting at a stop sign while the car opposite of you slowly passes over the bridge before your turn.

To paraphrase one resident: “I love how you need to stop, which suggests for you to relax, and prepare to step back in time to a less hectic world.  As you ease across the bridge, the sound and feel of the bricks and timbers under you add another reminder that you’re entering a special place.”

At the same time, today’s vehicles are bigger and technology steers drivers down particular roads to get them from Point A to Point B. No community today would choose to build such a small bridge today. Can everyone get what they want in such a situation?

This reminds me of driving through tunnels on the Pennsylvania Turnpike where they are clear signs prohibiting trucks carrying certain materials. Presumably, there is some sort of enforcement system. An overhead sensor could work. So could posting someone on each side of the bridge who can watch traffic and stop vehicles that are too tall.

This is not just a problem for this covered bridge. This can happen at drive-thrus, gas stations, parking garages, and other places with limited heights. If someone asked me how tall my vehicle is, I could guess but I would not know for sure. And if I was driving a different vehicle than normal, like a moving truck or a tall pickup, I might not even think about it.