Traffic deaths increased in 2016

Explaining the rise in traffic deaths in the last two years may be difficult to explain:

Cars may be safer than ever, but 37,461 people died on American roads that year, a 5.6 percent hike over 2015. While fatalities have dramatically declined in recent decades, this is the second straight year the number has risen. It’s too early to say why, exactly, this is happening. Researchers will need much more time with the data to figure that out. But here’s a hypothesis: It’s the economy, (crash) dummy.

“People drive more in a good economy,” says Chuck Farmer, who oversees research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “They drive to different places and for different reasons. There’s a difference between going out to a party in the middle of the night in an unfamiliar area and driving to work—that nighttime driving to a party is more risky.”…

Researchers have long known that driving deaths rise and dive with the economy and income growth. People with jobs have more reason to be on the road than the unemployed. But this increase can’t be pinned on the fact of more driving, the stats indicate. Even adjusted for miles traveled, fatalities have ticked up by 2.6 percent over 2015. You can still blame the economy, because people aren’t just driving more. They’re driving differently. Better economic condition give them the flexibility to drive for social reasons. There might be more bar visits (and drinking) and trips along unfamiliar roads (with extra time spent looking at a map on a phone).

The DOT numbers seem to confirm that drivers involved in traffic deaths were doing different things behind the wheel last year. The feds say the number people who died while not wearing seat belts climbed 4.6 percent, and that drunk driving fatalities rose 1.7 percent. Contrary to what you might expect, the numbers show distracted driving deaths dropped slightly, but experts caution against putting too much faith in such info. The numbers are based on police reports. They’re reflections of what cops are seeing at crash sites, but also of what’s in the zeitgeist at the time. It could be that first responders weren’t, for example, looking out for distracted driving last year because it wasn’t in the news as often.

Official statistics do not provide all the information we might want. In this case, the figure of interest to many will simply be the total number of deaths. Is an increase over two years enough to prompt rapid action? If so, I would imagine the regulatory structures regarding driverless cars might attract some attention. Or, do car deaths continue to be the costs we pay for having lifestyles built around driving?

In one decade, major suburban areas go from lowest drug overdose rates to highest

A new report details the rise of drug overdose deaths in suburbs:

Released Wednesday, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s 2017 County Health Rankings and an accompanying report analyze county-level data from all 50 states on more than 30 public health outcomes and behaviors. The report finds there’s been a clear flip in the geography of addiction: One decade ago, large suburban areas experienced the lowest rates of premature deaths due to drug overdoses. In 2015, they had the highest.

The Johnson Foundation’s analysis doesn’t pinpoint which counties experienced the most dramatic gains in drug-induced death. What it does is rank every county in the U.S., by state, using data that reflects local health conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, as well as measures that can predict health outcomes, including teen birth, smoking rates, and grocery store access…

Comparing those numbers to the Johnson Foundation report, I found startling disconnects between deadly drug problems and places that have an otherwise fairly “healthy” facade. For example, Essex County ranks sixth out of the 14 counties in the Bay State by the new report—middle-of-the-road when it comes to the chronic health conditions that normally wave red flags for public health researchers. Yet it’s increasingly afflicted by drug-related deaths.

On the fringes of Cincinnati, Boone County, Kentucky, ranks first out of 120 across its state on all other health rankings. As in Essex County, rates of diabetes, smoking, and teen births are relatively low; poverty is suppressed, and employment is solid. Yet a look at CDC data shows county saw its drug-related death rate leap from 26 in 2010 to nearly 46 in 2015. Ranked smack in the middle of Ohio’s 88 counties and also included in the Cincinnati metro area, Clermont County saw a similar leap. Another example: Clay County, part of the Jacksonville, Florida, metro area, is 11th of the Sunshine State’s 67 counties. But drug-related deaths increased from 14 in 2010 to 23 in 2015.

It has been interesting thus far and it will continue to be interesting to observe how this is treated by the media, government, and public. This would be a good case for studying how a social problem develops: American society is so large that not everything can receive the attention it deserves. For example, how do the reactions to suburban drugs differ to how Americans treat drug use in cities (or rural areas which rarely get any attention)? How is the drug use explained: as part of criminal activity, irresponsibility, broken down homes and/or neighborhoods, wealth, or addiction? Because these deaths are happening to suburbanites – who as this article notes, are supposed to be healthier and often are – the story will be different.

Ride the bus for a safer transit experience

A recent study of bus travel in Montreal suggests that it is a much safer experience compared to driving:

By perusing police reports from 2001 to 2010, they found motorists on these routes had more than three times the injury rate of bus passengers. Buses were also safer for people sharing the road. Cars were responsible for 95 percent of pedestrian and 96 percent of cyclist injuries on these arteries, they write in a presentation for this month’s meeting of the Transportation Research Board.

During the same time period in Montreal, nobody was killed while riding the bus, though 668 people were injured. (It’s unknown if that number includes bus operators, who are powerful magnets for abuse.) Meanwhile, auto occupants suffered 19 deaths and 10,892 injuries. Cars were linked to 42 pedestrian and three cyclist deaths, while buses were linked to four and zero, respectively…

In the United States car occupants have a fatality rate 23 times greater than bus passengers, while it’s respectively 11 and 10 times higher in Australia and Europe. They suggest getting more people on public transit could make a large impact on public health.

In terms of public health, the safety argument is compelling: without having to go all the way to self-driving vehicles for all, buses could be an important tool in reducing deaths. Yet, I’ve discussed before that I don’t think many middle- to upper-class Americans would choose to travel by bus in denser areas if they can afford to drive. I don’t know if the safety argument could overcome either (1) the stereotypes of riding the bus and (2) the inconvenience of the bus schedule as opposed to driving a car.

Perhaps what we need is for a city or two to experiment with a public campaign to boost bus membership with a safety campaign. Would residents find it compelling?

Dutch cycling culture aided by 1970s protests against kids killed in car accidents

The Dutch are known for their bicycling. How exactly this happened includes some interesting tidbits, such as the 1970s protests against cars (as told by Wikipedia):

The trend away from the bicycle and towards motorised transport only began to be slowed in the 1970s when Dutch people took to the streets to protest against the high number of child deaths on the roads: in some cases over 500 children were killed in car accidents in the Netherlands in a single year.[10] This protest movement came to be known as the Stop de Kindermoord (literally “Stop the Child Murder” in Dutch).[10] The success of this movement — along with other factors, such as the oil shortages of 1973–74[11] — turned Dutch government policy around and the country began to restrict motor vehicles in its towns and cities and direct its focus on growth towards other forms of transport, with the bicycle being seen as critical in making Dutch streets safer and towns and cities more people-friendly and liveable.

In the United States, over 32,000 people were killed in car accidents in 2015. The number was over 40,000 less than ten years ago and deaths in accidents peaked at over 50,000 a year in the early 1970s and late 1970s. (See the data going back all the way to 1899 here.) So where are the protests in the United States? A few reasons why the experience of the Dutch may not be replicated here:

  1. Americans love to drive. They have since the car was introduced. We have designed our lives around cars (think single-family homes with garages, highways, fast food, the vast system of gas stations, etc.). Could people protest about something they like?
  2. Mass movements in the United States where people turn out to protest in large numbers are relatively rare.
  3. Americans are willing to take risks in areas that other people in the world are not. Maybe it is due to a love of driving, perhaps it has to do with emphasizing individual freedoms.

It is fun to imagine Americans taking to the streets against cars…what exactly would it take? For some reason, I suspect they might protest more because of really high gas prices rather than high number of deaths by car accident.

Online experiment looks at “who driverless cars should kill”

Experiments don’t have to take place in a laboratory: the MIT Media Lab put together the “Moral Machine” to look into how people think driverless cars should operate.

That’s the premise behind “Moral Machine,” a creation of Scalable Corporation for MIT Media Lab. People who participate are asked 13 questions, all with just two options. In every scenario, a self-driving car with sudden brake failure has to make a choice: continue ahead, running into whatever is in front, or swerve out of the way, hitting whatever is in the other lane. These are all variations on philosophy’s “Trolley Problem,” first formulated in the late 1960s and named a little bit later. The question: “is it more just to pull a lever, sending a trolley down a different track to kill one person, or to leave the trolley on its course, where it will kill five?” is an inherently moral problem, and slight variations can change greatly how people choose to answer.

For the “Moral Machine,” there are lots of binary options: swerve vs. stay the course; pedestrians crossing legally vs. pedestrians jaywalking; humans vs. animals; and crash into pedestrians vs. crash in a way that kills the car’s occupants.

There is also, curiously, room for variation in the kinds of pedestrians the runaway car could hit. People in the scenario are male or female, children, adult, or elderly. They are athletic, nondescript, or large. They are executives, homeless, criminals, or nondescript. One question asked me to choose between saving a pregnant woman in a car, or saving “a boy, a female doctor, two female athletes, and a female executive.” I chose to swerve the car into the barricade, dooming the pregnant woman but saving the five other lives…

Trolley problems, like those offered by the Moral Machine, are eminently anticipated. At the end of the Moral Machine problem set, it informs test-takers that their answers were part of a data collection effort by scientists at the MIT Media Lab, for research into “autonomous machine ethics and society.” (There is a link people can click to opt-out of submitting their data to the survey).

It will be interesting to see what happens with these results. How does the experiment get around the sampling issue of who chooses to participate in such a study? Should the public get a voice in deciding how driverless cars are programmed to operate, particularly when it comes to life and death decisions? Are life and death decisions ultimately reducible to either/or choices?

At the same time, I like how this takes advantage of the Internet. This experiment could be conducted in a laboratory: subjects would be presented with a range of situations and asked to respond. But, the N possible in a lab is much lower than what is available online. Additionally, if this study is at the beginning of work regarding driverless cars, perhaps a big N with a less representative sample is more desirable just to get some idea of what people are thinking.

Reducing trespassing on railroad tracks

Experts from several areas are working to limit the number of people on railroad tracks:

Trespassing numbers have remained fairly steady over the years and now account for about 72 percent of all railroad-related deaths, with 761 fatalities in 2015, including 296 suicides.

Safety experts are now focused on finding ways to cut trespassing through education, intervention and barriers such as fencing at popular trespassing spots. But advocates concede it won’t be easy — there are 140,000 miles of railroad track in the United States, and it is impossible to contain it all.

“Trespassing has been more of a stubborn problem for us,” said Bonnie Murphy, president and CEO of Operation Lifesaver, a national train safety organization, who spoke along with other safety experts at the biennial DuPage Railroad Safety Council conference last week. “There’s a disturbing, ongoing trend of people walking along the tracks.”

This is an important safety issue. But, it raises a larger question: while the lines are technically private property, how do you realistically keep people off of them when they crisscross all parts of America at ground level? Railroads rejected the idea long ago that fences should be built along the thousands of miles of lines. There is no mention in this article of enforcing trespassing but I assume this would require a significant amount of resources. Cameras at important locations? Warning signs at regular intervals along the lines? Trains using a more effective warning signal of their arrival (think of a targeted rumbling option from a longer distance)? More effort at moving rail traffic away from major population centers (such as going around major metropolitan regions when possible)?

Railroads can be incredible at moving freight and people long distances. However, they don’t interact well with pedestrians.

Your friends have more friends that you

A sociologist discovered a law about how many friends your friends have:

Twenty-five years ago, sociologist Scott Feld demonstrated that on average, your friends have more friends than you do. This sounds impossible, but it’s true…

Go ahead, draw your own social networks and do the math for yourself. You’ll find that Feld’s law holds true for almost any network you can think of. That’s odd, but why should you care?

One reason to care is that Feld’s law explains that feeling many of us have that we’re less popular than our friends. Odds are, you’re right. Don’t take it personally; it’s just the way societies work.

Another reason to care is that Feld’s law is also true for any relationship in which people share something with one another. People share needles in the opiate epidemic facing Maine. People have shared sexual relations since the dawn of humanity. These kinds of sharing can also share deadly viruses like AIDS, hepatitis B and syphilis.

See the abstract of the 1991 article here.

It is interesting that this newspaper piece focuses on the dangerous aspects of this. Danger and death are needed to catch the attention of readers who might not otherwise care about sociological findings? What about normal life when it seems your friends are more popular than you? Rest assured; that is just the way the math works out.