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23rd of May 2018

Automotive



Save Lives With Smarter, Slower Streets—Not Self-Driving Cars

No, you’re not imagining things. The timelines for autonomous vehicles keep shifting. Electric carmaker Tesla began selling a $3,000 “full self-driving” add-on to its Autopilot feature in 2016—everything you need to drive without driving!—but still hasn’t turned it on. In 2012, Google’s Sergey Brin said “ordinary people” would have access to self-driving cars by 2017; the company is still gearing up for a very limited driverless taxi service this year. Volvo quietly delayed a project that was supposed to put 100 Swedish families into autonomous vehicles by 2017.

No one wants unready tech on public roads, but for anyone who has bought into the technology’s promise to save lives, the delay is a bummer. To put it very lightly. Almost 40,000 Americans died on the road last year. And a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety finds ugly driving trends have hit one group particularly hard: pedestrians. Nearly 6,000 pedestrian died in 2016, a 46 percent jump over 2009. And if robots won’t save the bipeds, who will?

Your friendly carbon-based neighborhood traffic engineer can—and they don’t even need artificial intelligence or $75,000 laser sensors to do it.

“If there is too much emphasis on autonomous vehicles solving the problem, when widespread deployability is decades in the future and not next year, I think it increases the temptation to hope that the technology is going to save us,” says Liisa Ecola, a transportation planner and senior policy analyst with the Rand Corporation. “Traffic safety is a big problem now and to ignore the things we can do, I think, is a disservice to the tens of thousands of people who are killed every year in crashes.”

So forget robots. Engineers and the public officials who dole out their paychecks can start redesigning streets to make them safer. They can zoom in on their problem areas—is there a section of road where people keep getting hurt?—and start fixing roads today.

The IIHS study points to the walking pain points, the issues to be solved. Between 2009 and 2016, deaths on arterials—the high-capacity, wide, multilane roads that feed into freeways or highways—jumped 67 percent. Deaths at sections of roads that weren’t intersections went up 50 percent. Deaths in the dark rose by more than half.

The good news is that road engineers have access to a suite of “traffic-calming” measures, which would slow down cars on otherwise fast-paced roads and could prevent many crashes. In fact, Scandinavian-inspired Vision Zero programs, which seek to totally eliminate road deaths and have been adopted by hundreds of places in the US, lay out basic principles for preventing deaths.

Let’s take a particular example of a terrible and tragic road death. In March, Arizona resident Elaine Herzberg died when she was struck by a self-driving Uber on a wide, multilane road in Tempe, Arizona. The crash made clear the fallibility not just of robots—we don't know why the Uber didn’t hit the brakes or swerve—but of humans. The Uber employee sitting behind the wheel, charged with grabbing the wheel to prevent crashes, was looking away from the road when the SUV hit Herzberg.

A better robot could have saved Herzberg’s life, but so might have better road design. Tempe is pretty typical for a middling-density place. Engineers built its arterials to transport cars, and quickly. Their long, straight lines are easy for drivers to navigate but induce a slow, lazy “zoning out,” and a level of comfort that makes it easier to glance away from the road.

Deaths like Herzeberg’s, on streets like Tempe’s, might have been prevented with more frequent and shorter crosswalks. Herzberg, wheeling a bicycle weighed down with plastic bags, was about 100 yards from the nearest crosswalk when she died. That’s not too far, but given how many crosswalks on urban arterials are miles away from each other, it’s not hard to comprehend why a walker like Herzberg might risk a run across the road.

Another option is to put a street on what engineers call a “road diet,” narrowing or even eliminating lanes of traffic. Reducing the margin of error makes drivers more likely to pay attention—research evaluated by the Federal Highway Administration suggests road diets can cut crashes by more than 30 percent, and pedestrian deaths or injuries by more than 20.

Safety-minded engineers suggest that even simply adding trees or landscaping to the sides of roads adds eye-catching elements that can force drivers to focus. Things like “bulb outs,” which jut into the street at intersections and shorten distances between corners for pedestrians, work too. Any way engineers can get drivers to slow the heck down is helpful. The faster a car is moving, the more likely it is to kill someone in a collision. You’re as much as 5.5 times more likely to kill someone hitting them at 40 mph than 30 mph.

(Oh, and drive smaller cars too. The IIHS study notes a spike in deaths among those hit by the larger trucks and SUVs Americans cannot stop buying.)

Implementing these fixes should be far easier than teaching a robot to interpret a traffic cop’s hand signals. Most transportation engineers now joining the workforce should be well-acquainted with these strategies, and ready to emphasize safety over speed. And compared to the economic impact of crashes—not to mention the loss of lives—Vision Zero–type interventions cost pennies.

But that’s not always the way it turns out in city hall. Infrastructure funding is scarce. Drivers can get hostile when you suggest slowing their commutes for the sake of, well, anything. And scientists are still struggling to pin rising pedestrian deaths on any one factor. “Traffic safety is really a very multidisciplinary problem,” says Ecola. “It’s not something we can fix just with engineering solutions or just with campaigns to get people to wear their seatbelts more often. It’s all of those things.”

Still, if tragic crashes don’t get politicians’ attention, what will? Hopefully not just the robo-cars that always seem a horizon away.

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