Murder Machines: Why Cars Will Kill 30,000 Americans This Year. A good essay-length look at how social norms regarding streets and safety have changed over the last century, and why our current norms and design guidelines lead very predictably to tends of thousands of preventable deaths each year. Covers a lot of the same territory as Peter D. Norton’s excellent book Fighting Traffic, which gives a detailed historical account of the transition, between about 1915 and 1930, from streets being universally accessible public space to being nearly the sole domain of motorized transportation. Ralph Nader effectively spearheaded a campaign for safety measures that protect those inside these deadly vehicles. We need just as powerful a champion for those outside them, who make up about a third of all motor vehicle casualties in the US. Streets don’t have to be designed to kill people. Giving up a little bit of convenience for motorists frees up a lot of space and safety for everyone else.
Two bicyclists have been killed at the intersection of US-36 and Violet Avenue since 2009. The most recent was TJ Doherty, on July 24th, 2012. Both cyclists were headed southeast on US-36, and were hit by cars traveling northwest, making left turns onto Violet. In this area US-36 is just outside of Boulder’s city limits, in the county, but it’s the Colorado Dept. of Transportation (CDOT) that’s responsible for it. Looking at the aerial view below we can explore why this intersection might be particularly dangerous for cyclists.
Northwest bound vehicles on US-36 have a dedicated left turn lane, and no obligation to stop before making their turn. The angle that Violet Ave. makes with the highway is quite oblique, meaning that it can be taken at high speed, and because US-36 has a speed limit of 55 mph in this area, cars often will take it at high speed if they don’t see any oncoming traffic.
From a southeast bound bicycle’s point of view, there’s no obviously correct place to be on the road, if they’re planning to proceed through the intersection. The shoulder on the west side of the road narrows to a few inches, and it’s to the right of a right-turn-only lane. If you ride all the way to the right, you risk a vehicle turning in front of you onto Violet. Your intent to continue through the intersection is also unclear to oncoming traffic. Most cyclists instead take a position that’s well within the right turn lane, to prevent right-turning vehicles from passing them and immediately turning right in front of them. However, this lane position still leaves their intent ambiguous to oncoming traffic. Alternatively, you might choose to straddle the line separating the through travel lane and the right turn lane. This makes the bike relatively visible, and more clearly conveys the intent to continue through the intersection, at the expense of potentially sandwiching the cyclist between right turning vehicles and very fast moving through traffic. If the cyclist instead chooses to behave exactly like a motor vehicle, moving into the through lane of traffic, the very large difference in speed between the bike and the other vehicles in that lane creates a hazard. Thus, there’s no right place for a cyclist to be on this road if they’re planning to continue through the intersection.
When we combine the unavoidable ambiguity of the through cyclist’s intent with the very high left-turning speeds of oncoming traffic, we have a recipe for disaster. A recipe which has killed two people in three years.
Peer to peer carshare cars are killing people, because cars of any kind kill people… not because they’re shared. They’re big and heavy and fast, and they get operated in densely populated areas. Anybody who thought this wouldn’t come up when they started setting up these services was delusional. The thing I don’t really get is why on earth is the owner of the car liable for an accident involving it? Assuming the car didn’t spontaneously explode due to poor maintenance, I presume the death and destruction is a consequence of bad driving, texting, drinking, poor road engineering, etc. Just like all the other 40,000 people who get killed by cars in the US every year. The problem that needs to be fixed here isn’t intrinsic to car sharing, it’s a problem with the way we assign liability in automobile accidents.
We hide many of the financial costs of our automobile culture, such as the exorbitant true price of parking, but just as much, we hide the cost in human lives. By far, the most common source of violent traumatic injury and death in the developed world is our beloved motor vehicle. In the US alone, every year 10 times as many people are killed by cars than were killed in the World Trade Center attacks, 10 times as many as have been killed in the Iraq war. Every two years we kill more Americans with vehicles than we did in all of the Vietnam war. Every three years, more than WWI, every ten, more than WWII.
Why do we deem these losses acceptable? They aren’t inevitable. The UK, Iceland, Sweden, Japan, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland and Switzerland all have vehicular death rates less than half of our 12/100,000 people per year (which puts us on par with Bangladesh…). We can re-design and re-build our cities and our streets to avoid this carnage, for a fraction of the cost of our ill-fated War on Terror, and many other governmental actions supposedly undertaken in the name of keeping us safe. Safe from threats which do not really exist, in a statistical sense, but which loom large in our monkey minds.
Would it be different if we left the corpses out on the roads to rot? If we hung the out skeletal remains as a ghastly reminder? Some software developers in Moscow are trying to do just that, with a mobile augmented reality app called the Death Revealer: