Alternatives to the Automobile

Who's Taking Risks?

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Every now and then every cyclist in America -- and many pedestrians -- will be confronted with a comment like , "You must be crazy to ride/walk on that road," or "Kee-rist, look at that cyclist out there, must have a death wish." These are expressions of a deep-seated American belief (almost a religious faith) that only travelling by private automobile is "safe". On public transit "you might get mugged." On a bicycle you are "risking your life". As a pedestrian you are thought to be exposing yourself suicidally to both violent crime and road risk.

I've written at some length elsewhere about the bizarre, wholly selfish definition of "safety" that's required in order to define walking or cycling as "dangerous" and driving a car as "safe" (see related articles). At the moment, being rather fed up with all the drivers who insist that cyclists and pedestrians are taking unnecessary risks, I'd like to focus for a moment on the unnecessary risks that drivers are always taking and being encouraged to take, and the very serious problem of (lack of) accountability for the consequences.

First, let's think about how "safety" is achieved for drivers. Over the last 40 years, "safety" has been created by making it more and more possible to drive a car dangerously and incompetently without serious consequences to the driver or other occupants. Every innovation has focussed on making it more possible for people inside the car to survive a crash, rather than on preventing crashes in the first place or reducing their severity e.g. by lowering speed limits.

There is a fatalistic flavour to the history of traditional "road safety" development. If people drive too fast and crash into things -- each other, trees, lamp posts, bridges, abutments, walls, etc. -- then the important thing is to make sure the driver and passengers of the car don't get hurt. Thus we invent seatbelts, then "crumple bumpers", then airbags and antilock brakes. We try harder and harder to make the car into a cocoon in which the driver and passengers are nearly invulnerable, no matter how stupidly the driver behaves. At some point in recent history we despaired of controlling driver behaviour, getting people to slow down or be less careless. We have made some attempts at getting people not to drive drunk, but there's a terrible inconsistency in our approach to DUI (see below).

We have, in a sense, defeated evolution by ensuring that stupid and dangerous behaviour will not kill or incapacitate the person doing it. And this is how we have "kept up" with the increase in the American population and the vastly steeper increase in the number of cars and the driving population. In America today, the ownership and driving of automobiles is a more important (and more eagerly undertaken) franchise than the vote. Far more people drive than vote. Automobile technologists have scrambled desperately to keep our total national road fatalities about the same for a quarter century, even as the number of miles driven per annum has risen and risen -- reaching in the last decade the appalling total of 2.5 trillion miles.

The "Centerlines" online newsletter (read by the "alternative transportation" community nationwide) recently featured this article:


A paper by Cees Wildervanck, presented at the "Expert Workshop on In-Car Technology and Driver Behaviour" (Delft,1996). "About half of traffic accidents are caused by errors in distribution of attention, ranging from in-car discussion groups via using the car-phone to just missing relevant stimuli from the environment . . .

I would like us to stop and think seriously about this finding for a moment. About half of traffic accidents are caused by errors [errors on the driver's part, implicitly] of inattentiveness caused by distraction. Got that? Half.

Now, what are American marketeers selling hard to automobile owners? Louder stereos with more complicated front panels! Larger cars with quieter interiors so it's easier to conduct fascinating conversations while driving. Cars with soft drink holders and meal trays so we can eat and drive at the same time. GPS navigators for the dashboard. More and more gizmos on the front panel. Air conditioning that doesn't work unless you roll up all the windows. Radar detectors to help you speed without getting caught (plus more interesting blinking lights to distract you). And of course, the ubiquitous cell phone: cell phones with better batteries, for longer "talk time". Cell phones and pagers with text messaging (something else to stare at instead of the road).

Drivers are already at a sensory disadvantage (compared to the pedestrian or cyclist). The driver's vision is restricted by the structure of the vehicle. The driver's hearing is (a) deafened by the engine and wind noise, or (b) muffled by closing all the windows to evade the noise. It is axiomatic among urban cyclists that "inside a car, no one can hear you scream." [Which is why this urban cyclist carries an exceptionally loud air horn.] At night, the driver's vision is particularly limited: dazzled by oncoming headlights and night-blind anywhere outside the throw of his/her own lights, he/she has no peripheral vision left at all.

Most of the senses on which human beings have relied for 20,000 years to receive "relevant stimuli from the environment" are defeated by travelling in a car. And rather than trying to compensate for all this, we are rushing headlong to make it worse and worse. Now we not only have people driving with all the windows up, sealed inside a semi-soundproof box; we have people sealed inside a box with an immensely powerful stereo thumping loudly enough to rattle windows in the houses they drive past. The same insanely loud stereo comes with a lot of front panel switches and toys to play with, absolutely begging the driver to tweak the graphic equalizer or change CDs while roaring down the boulevard at 35mph plus.

It's hard to say which came first: the plethora of distracting toys that help to exacerbate a driver's sensory deprivation and diminish attentiveness -- or the "safety" features that make it possible to drive so distractedly and inattentively without getting hurt. We now have ABS so that the inattentive driver can slam on the brakes without spinning out, after finally perceiving a hazard. We have airbags and seatbelts so that the inattentive driver can walk away from a crash that he/she should never have got into in the first place (remember, half of all road accidents are attributed in the research paper above to a failure of attentiveness).

Did we make the interior of cars safer and safer to compensate for the distracting toys people were already fooling with? Or did the toys start to accumulate as people felt safer and safer, more and more relaxed, inside their invulnerable cocoons?

Over and over again we have responded to the danger of driving too fast by widening roads and adding "safety" features to cars to make it "safe" to drive that fast; we have responded similarly to the danger of driving inattentively. Even in the paper above, the proposed solution is not to cut back on the stupid things people do in cars, but to re-engineer roads so that driving will take still less attentiveness.

That gives us the first hint: preferably, don't distract the driver from his main task, and, if possible, avoid peak mental loads. (Roundabouts are a nice example: the mental load of a busy conventional junction is "spread out" over a series of easy T-junctions.)..."
The "mental load" of a busy conventional junction should be dumbed down, claims the author -- presumably so that Soccer Mom and Junior Executive will be able to chat on their cell phones, play with the stereo, and still make their next turning correctly.

We have also responded to the risk of car crashes by making cars just plain bigger. For 50 years and more the "road safety" authorities have been telling people to buy bigger and heavier cars so as to keep their families "safer". As a result, except for one brief period of semi-sanity during the mid 1970's "energy crisis," American roads have been crowded with huge, cumbersome vehicles weighing over a ton and up to 3 ton. And that's just the private automobiles :-) the size of long-haul heavy trucks has also been driven up as the freight delivery sector tries to squeeze more tonnage/miles out of their drivers.

But, you may say, what's the harm? If we raise the baseline, it's still basically the same game. So, everyone gets a "safer" car, everyone drives a bit more dangerously; everyone gets a heavier car, but everyone else has also got a heavier car, so it's a zero sum game. Zero-sum, that is, except for certain industrial sectors like petroleum, steel, and automobiles -- for whom it has been a very, very positive-sum game :-)

The harm is this: there is a community of road users who are not able to play this game. I refer, of course, to pedestrians and cyclists (and to a lesser degree motorcyclists).

It is simply impossible for any cyclist (motor- or pedal-) to armour him/herself and vehicle proportionately to the escalation in speed, vehicle size, and incompetent driving which we've seen in the last couple of decades. Similarly the motorcyclist is inherently unable to participate in the arms race (though they certainly have participated in the speed race, and even in the gadgets and gizmos race -- seen a fully-dressed Gold Wing lately? everything but a minibar!)

It is simply impossible for a pedestrian to arm and armour him or herself proportionately to the increased hazard imposed by: faster and more careless driving; inattentive driving; heavy vehicles with worse stopping distances; high vehicles which obstruct visibility; and (it must be said) just plain arrogant driving by people who have truly caught the "arms race" spirit and are enjoying the sense of power and domination offered by the largest, most powerful and most expensive motor vehicles available.

The response of our "safety" authorities is predictable. We must somehow "engineer safety" into cyclists and pedestrians. We must, first of all, start putting body armour on the cyclists and motorcyclists, starting with the head (we should note that leg armour has also been proposed in some European countries as a legal requirement for motorcyclists). We must ensure that cyclists and pedestrians dress up like living road flares, donning dayglo and reflective clothing (day or night), wearing blinking lights after dark -- all in an attempt to compensate for the sensory deprivation voluntary undertaken by motorists and encouraged by marketeers.

We must then force pedestrians and cyclists to be more aware, more alert, more competent than their inattentive motoring sistren and brethren. It is legal for a driver to drive on city streets with all windows up and loud music booming, completely deafening the driver to outside sounds. But it is illegal in many cities for a cyclist to ride wearing headphones! Note that I'm not saying cyclists should ride wearing headphones -- that would be foolish. I don't mind making that illegal. It's not wise to deafen oneself voluntarily when travelling at speed, in traffic, on wheels, on public streets. Yet motorists do this all the time and it is considered perfectly normal. Whereas in a sane world, it would be even more illegal for someone driving a heavy, dangerous, potentially lethal vehicle to blunt their own sensorium in this way.

If all else fails, of course, we must "engineer" pedestrians and cyclists right out of the way -- just as we must "dumb down" intersections -- so that inattentive, unskilled drivers can drive stupidly without killing others. However, when we sweep bikes and peds under the rug -- or off onto sidepath networks -- we diminish their mobility and reduce their access to the amenities of their city or town. Real estate is precious; and all the good roadbeds are already "taken" for motor vehicle roads. No network of sidepaths, bandaided into place ex post facto, will ever serve all the shops, civic buildings, schools, churches, restaurants, and so forth, that are served by the existing network of car roads. Face it: people on foot and on bikes want to go to all the same places drivers now go. To banish peds and bikes to a separate pseudo-system of sidepaths is a "separate and unequal" strategy which essentially disenfranchises those who do not drive.

It is about time we stopped pointing (out the car window, of course) at the pedestrian or cyclist and marvelling how anyone could be so foolhardy as to venture outside the protective confines of the car. It's about time we started pointing at the guy with the loud car stereo and saying "Stupid. Dangerous." Also at the lady chatting on her cell phone while driving. And at the guy engaged in a bitter domestic argument on the freeway. And at the all-American family with two screaming kids in the back seat. It's time we admitted that piloting a heavy motor vehicle is a serious undertaking that requires skill and concentration, and that a lot of our drivers are applying neither to the task; and that eventually, they will not get away with this and someone will get hurt. It's not unlikely that the person who gets hurt will be outside rather than inside the car.

If a cyclist or a pedestrian is consistently stupid, the odds are that he/she will come to grief. Cyclists who typically make errors of judgment about speed, angle, and surface traction, will eventually fall down. Pedestrians who don't look where they are going will trip and fall. There's strong motivation to pay attention.

If a driver is consistently stupid, he/she may dent the car a bit, damage some property, or injure or kill a more vulnerable road user (or an animal). Monetary consequences might return to haunt the driver, but usually the insurance company takes care of that. Injury and fatality consequences are often inflicted on others, in a situation of very one-sided risk: the driver's carelessness or foolishness is paid for by someone else. If you really want to depress yourself, take a look at the number of American drivers who have lost their licenses after killing a pedestrian or cyclist.

Why is it that we hold people responsible for the dulling of their reflexes and senses produced by intoxication, but we hold them completely unaccountable for the myriad other non-chemical distractions which make their driving dangerous -- mostly to others? We tsk-tsk over the drunk driver; we conduct national campaigns singling out the tipplers; but what do we do about all those cell-phone users, mega-stereo addicts, compulsive conversationalists -- all those folks determined to "save time" by shaving, brushing their hair or teeth, applying make-up, reading the map, eating breakfast, and receiving faxes (no, I'm not kidding) in their moving cars? We do jack about them, that's what we do.

When we do discuss this problem, we suggest stupid solutions like re-engineering intersections so that even a badly distracted person can somehow muddle through without paying attention. There is a word for this kind of "helpfulness" in the jargon of AA. It's called "enabling." Our so-called safety authorities have not, for many years now, been in the business of safety. They have been instead in the business of enabling irresponsible and stupid behaviour on the part of drivers.

We took a very wrong turn a long time ago, when we adopted a counsel of despair about driver competence and attention. We started on a project to re-engineer our world to be safe for stupid drivers. In the process we have steadily made our world, by gradual degrees, less pleasant and more dangerous for everyone outside a car. Is it any surprise that the average American now walks less than 75 miles a year -- that only 7 percent of Americans ride a bike with any regularity -- that both adults and children get too little exercise and suffer nagging lifelong health problems as a result?

This is not a zero sum game. It is a negative sum game. We need a shuffle and a fresh deal.
De Clarke