Cars vs. people

From 2014: How a few simple changes to our roads and our vehicles could bring traffic fatalities down­—to zero



In the century-long struggle for peaceful coexistence between human and automobile, there can be little doubt which side has had the upper hand. A driver who misses a yield-to-pedestrians sign and strikes and kills someone can receive a fine as small as $151. Media coverage of traffic-calming measures like speed bumps usually features debates over whether they will slow drivers unacceptably or represent a waste of tax dollars. Bull bars, the protective front extensions found on some trucks and SUVs, guard the valuable innards of the vehicles and wreak havoc on the internal organs of people struck by them; they are nonetheless formally known as “protection bars.” Consider the language, the underlying assumptions and the terms of the debate: Cars rule.

Canadians accept that accidents, often gruesome in their effects, will happen, that cars and trucks will exact a certain amount of collateral damage for the personal and economic freedom they offer. And so they have: 28,000 dead and 186,000 drivers, passengers, pedestrians and cyclists hospitalized in Canada during the decade 1999 to 2008 (the last we have full data for). They’re part of a worldwide automotive toll that now runs at about 1.2 million deaths and 50 million injuries annually. The Canadian numbers are just the official stats, notes B.C. civil servant and road safety researcher Neil Arason. A child run over in a private driveway (around 20 a year in Canada); a victim who dies more than 30 days after the accident; a later suicide, whether prompted by pain, disability, depression or grief at the loss of a loved one: none of those deaths are counted.

So axiomatic is our acceptance of the cost, that the very concept of Vision Zero—a term used internationally and adopted by Arason to label his plan for the end of traffic fatalities in Canada by 2035—seems preposterously utopian. Even for Arason, a 49-year-old father of two teenagers, whose job dictates a daily encounter with traffic mortality figures, the idea of fatality-free roads conjured up visions of Styrofoam-lined highways. But the more he considered it, the reams of safety research that has been piling up for decades, and the well-advanced programs in such nations as Sweden and Japan, the more he decided there were realistic ways to Vision Zero. So he wrote No Accident: Eliminating Injury and Death on Canadian Roads, setting out a road map to take Canadians there.

We simply haven’t looked at the issue the way we should, argues Arason. Our conceptual failure lies in large part in our refusal to think of an accident involving a car separately from its consequences. It’s obvious in accident investigations, Arason says. “The focus is always on what happened, on the driver, on whether the driver error was culpable—alcohol, drugs, speed—or mitigated: road conditions, pedestrian actions, mechanical failure. What we should be asking is, ‘Why did this accident cause such trauma, physical and emotional?’ ” Yes, the human factor does matter a lot, and safety measures should aim to influence driver behaviour, the more automatically the better, but a shift of focus to the road system and, above all, to the dangerous machines we drive, says Arason, is what will make Vision Zero conceivable and possible.


However utopian Canadians might find the concept, it’s certainly the way most of the developed world already thinks. While the Canadian road fatality rate per 100,000 people is 5.8 and the Americans stand at 10.7—miles ahead of less developed nations like Russia and the Dominican Republic (currently the world’s most dangerous traffic environment)—the North American countries rank only 16th and 30th among advanced countries. The Netherlands, which had a fatality rate worse than Canada’s in 1970 (24.6 to 23.8) actually was at 3.9 in 2012.

Swedes have done even better. Despite doubling the number of cars on the roads and the number of kilometres driven since 1970, fatalities have dropped by 80 per cent. Sweden now has a world’s-best rate of 2.7. Safer cars and improved emergency medical care have been important factors everywhere, but Sweden has also added lower urban speed limits, more roundabouts, pedestrian bridges, redesigned highways and a minimal permissible blood-alcohol count of 0.02 per cent. (School buses and government vehicles, as well as a third of the nation’s taxis, have built-in Breathalyzers, which prevent them from starting if the driver exceeds that count.) Even in the United States—where Arason marvels that the quality of American safety research never seems to translate into change on American roads—individual cities are pushing traffic fatalities to the top of their agendas. New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, is openly looking to Sweden, where Vision Zero has been official national policy since 1997.

Driving in North America might seem to have more challenges than in European nations. The weather is frequently severe and the distances are long—many Canadian fatalities occur on rural highways. But Sweden too has rough winters; what’s more, densely populated countries like EU members and Japan have more equally deadly points of pedestrian-vehicle interaction. Even measurements that should powerfully favour the U.S. and Canada, such as deaths per billions of kilometres driven, do not put us among the best performers.

Canadian progress has been good, certainly for drivers and passengers, part of a generation-long trend in airbag installation and mandatory seat-belt laws. National fatalities have been dropping since they peaked at 6,706 in 1973, a year when an abundance of young Baby-Boom male drivers was matched by a scarcity of protective gear. But we are stalling far behind our peers, Arason points out. If Canada had managed a rate in line with Britain’s 3.1 in 2011 we would have saved 1,059 of the 2,006 lives lost that year alone.


Going off-road: Should elderly drivers be subject to special testing?

Why there is no such thing as a safe teen driver

Part of what keeps Canadians spinning their wheels is that virtually all progress so far in this country has been for those within the car. Although Japan and Europe have been mandating measures such as softer vehicle fronts since 2005 for “passive protection” of other road users (pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders), the North American response, according to Arason, has been “silence.” In Canada, pedestrian fatalities have barely budged in 15 years: 5,755 dead and 205,000 injured in total, an average of 383 deaths a year.

If the toll in lives and physical trauma isn’t enough to change Canadians’ focus, Arason grimly suggests they consider the annual economic carnage wreaked by car accidents, as estimated by Transport Canada: $63 billion. Many of Arason’s recommendations—painting pedestrian crossings lime-yellow, for one—are cheap in absolute terms; the rest, from mandatory rear-view cameras to self-activating brakes in all new cars, still don’t approach the Transport Canada figure. “The right thing to do morally is to build and operate this consumer product so that it doesn’t kill people,” he says. “But when you do the math as well, it’s so compelling—make the investment, make the changes.”

Those changes are designed to reduce speed and its devastating effects where cars and pedestrians mix, applied to every aspect of the system: drivers, roads and vehicles.

Overt measures aimed at drivers are few but powerful. A handful of English-language countries, including Canada, stand out in the developed world in setting criminal blood alcohol levels at 0.08 (although several Canadian provinces subject motorists at the .05 level to licence suspensions ranging from 24 hours to seven days). Japan and continental Europe mandate .05—at most, that is; Sweden is not alone in setting the limit at .02, which is barely enough to encompass a small glass of wine at dinner.

Likewise, in those safety-conscious jurisdictions, the licensing age for driving begins at 18, even in countries where 16-year-olds can drink beer—the opposite of the Canadian situation. North America, despite having spent the past generation tightly circumscribing teen lives—hustling them out of malls and parks, scheduling them in every waking moment—is alone in allowing children to drive. American research shows that teens drivers are matched only by the elderly as a danger to those around them: fully a third of those killed or injured in car crashes involving teen drivers were outside the vehicle. Yet we still start licensing at 16, although conditions for young motorists, including a zero blood-alcohol level and a partial ban on night driving, are more strict than they once were.

Speed limits have steadily decreased in European residential areas, and are now most often set at 30 km/h. A reduction to that speed from 50 km/h, common in Canadian cities, would pay huge dividends here, Arason says. A pedestrian is five to eight times more likely to be killed when struck at 50 km/h than at 30, and he or she is also less likely to be hit at all when traffic is slowed, since people have more time to jump out of the way while cars require less time and distance to stop.

The key factor in making lower speed limits work is stepped-up automated enforcement. New York City has announced it will increase its speed cameras in school zones from 20 to 140. But otherwise trying to force changes in driver behaviour is a dead end for Vision Zero proponents, a focus that will never achieve its goal. “We always blame drivers, but we forgive them too,” says Arason. “Courts have ruled time and again that humans can have lapses of attention. Low fines, even for disasters, are not uncommon—a $450 fine for a bus driver hitting a disembarked passenger—and, you know, the courts are right. People make mistakes. We need to fix the system so that humans can go on having lapses, go on being inattentive and distracted, but nobody dies in the car or outside it.”

It may not be that simple. Economist Patrick Luciani, a senior fellow at the global cities program at the University of Toronto, thinks that Arason has swung from a mindset that places too much onus on the driver to the “notion that people are never responsible.” He notes that all directed changes in human behaviour have unintended consequences. Behavioural economics research has shown that people tend to “spend” rather than “save” whatever improvements they perceive in their personal safety. “SUV drivers think they are safer, but evidence shows they aren’t,” says Luciani, “simply because they drive faster,” just as armoured hockey players crash into one another more violently than before. Whatever we spend or mandate, we “can never fully compensate for the idiot behind the wheel.” Vision Zero will always be more aspirational than achievable. Still, Luciani is happy to add, when he recently dozed off on a Toronto-area highway, he was very relieved to have been “jolted awake by the vibrations of rumble strips, a relatively inexpensive safety feature.”


In many regards Arason couldn’t agree more with Luciani: he’s trying to remove drivers from the equation for safety’s sake, not because he thinks they are blameless victims.Even to contemplate human fallibility combined with tons of metal travelling at high speed is a recipe for despair. “When you think of the millions of drivers and the billions of kilometres driven . . . ” Arason’s voice trails off before he begins a litany.

There are ever more distracted drivers—and distraction has been established as a factor in 78 per cent of all crashes. On the flip side of that equation, the removal of a major source of distraction pays off in startling fashion: a two-day BlackBerry outage in the Middle East in 2011 coincided with a 40 per cent reduction in accidents in Abu Dhabi. There are distracted-driving laws directed primarily at mobile phone users in every Canadian jurisdiction, save Nunavut. One gauge of their effectiveness is that Ontario continually increases the penalties, now set to reach $1,000 and three demerit points. The reason for the latest increase, the province declared, was that the problem continues to worsen: fatalities from distracted driving are forecast to exceed those from drunk driving by 2016.

There are visually impaired drivers—an estimated 20 per cent of the Canadians unable to recognize a friend across the street still have licences. There are criminal drivers: police estimate that 75 per cent of those who have had their licences suspended continue to drive. (Such drivers are statistically 10 times more likely than their law-abiding peers to cause an accident: their relative impunity is another argument in favour of automated plate-reading cameras.) There are tired drivers: Canada allows truckers to work 13 hours a day, even though research links their sedentary lifestyle to sleep disorders, indicating that more than 10 per cent of the nation’s 660,000 commercial drivers could be prone to falling asleep at the wheel. And that’s just the motorists: there are distracted, texting cyclists and pedestrians too, often wearing black clothes on rainy nights and jaywalking on impulse.

So fix the system instead, says Arason, especially at the literal intersection of cars and people. “It’s bizarre that we allow concurrent movements between pedestrians and large vehicles, that we allow them both to move about intersections at the same time. Look at the number of pedestrians doing nothing legally wrong—more than 30,000 in the last decade in Canada—who are struck by turning drivers.” (Turning left is inherently more difficult than turning right, as the numbers show—twice as many pedestrians are struck during left turns as during right turns. MRI studies conducted in Toronto in 2012 showed that the number of judgment calls facing a left-turning brain can be overwhelming. And it’s even harder at night because headlights are angled right to avoid shining in the eyes of oncoming drivers. In a real sense, a nighttime left turn is a leap in the dark.)

Arason urges expanding measures to separate pedestrians and cyclists from motor vehicle traffic: at busy intersections, establish crossing protocols that are all-pedestrian or all-vehicle. Do that via the so-called pedestrian scramble, which provides foot traffic with an exclusive walk signal that stops cars in all directions. When cars are moving in any direction, pedestrians may not. At other corners, provide three- to six-second exclusive advance walk signals to give pedestrians a head start, putting them out in front of cars where they are more visible. Vividly communicate the presence of crosswalks to drivers through the use of highly visible lime-yellow coloured signs. Build separated bike lanes and brightly painted boxed-off bicycle areas that put cyclists out ahead of intersection traffic where they too can be seen.

Like many European countries have, Canada should convert traffic signal-controlled intersections to roundabouts wherever practicable. Drivers tend to hate roundabouts for the same reason the traffic circles work to reduce deaths and serious injuries: they force driver alertness. Motorists understand intuitively that they must be on the lookout and make decisions. Roundabouts reduce speeds and, by requiring all cars to travel in the same direction, eliminate dangerous right-angle crashes. European evidence shows that roundabouts deliver: a Dutch study found injury accidents dropped by 65 per cent across 181 right-angle intersections converted to roundabouts. France has been increasing its roundabout total by 1,000 a year since 1993.

In short, don’t educate—or hector or threaten—for safety’s sake: design for it. After all, as Arason is fond of quoting from a New England Journal of Medicine editorial, safety caps on prescription medication have saved more children’s lives than endless exhortations to their parents.

When the life-saving potential of drivers and roads are exhausted, turn to what Arason considers the most important leg of the tripod, the vehicles themselves. They have been getting safer for decades for those inside them, at a steady if slow pace. In 1950, Popular Mechanics magazine was already campaigning for the seat belts that would not become mandatory for decades, urging its readers to order the belts from aircraft manufacturers and install them themselves. Helpful measures now would include banning the bull bars so deadly to pedestrians.

Above all, governments should mandate the safety features already offered as options on higher-end cars, prompting new economies of scale that would force down prices. Rear-facing cameras could virtually eliminate the tragedy of children killed by reversing motorists in driveways and parking lots. For pedestrians, whose deaths in accidents are frequently caused by head injuries, often from being flung onto the road surface, changes to the fronts of vehicles would save lives: Sloping hoods that incline pedestrians to fall—and remain—on the vehicle rather than the road, and softer surfaces in the areas around the hood. A mere 10 cm of space between the hood edge and the rock-hard engine block can absorb the energy of a collision and prevent many deaths. “Canadians buy 1.5 million new cars a year,” says Arason. “We are wasting time.”

Better yet, avoid the collision all together: require sensors in all vehicles to detect pedestrians and cyclists and apply brakes automatically. “The sensors,” Arason says mildly, “do what you would have done, had you been paying attention.”

None of these measures are in the sci-fi realm. Volvo—whose Swedish origins are no coincidence—is already well on its way to an ambitious goal. By 2020 there will be so many active and passive safety systems in Volvo models—from automatic brakes to airbags under hoods—that the firm claims that no car it produces will kill anyone: driver, passenger, pedestrian or cyclist.

New York City’s previous measures to ensure safety for child pedestrians—companion pieces to Mayor de Blasio’s increase in school-area enforcement cameras—have already paid off, according to a just-released study. Interventions included narrowing intersections by building out sidewalks, setting off dedicated bicycle lanes, installing speed humps, and timing lights so pedestrians have more time to cross. The program—now de-funded by Congress—cost $10 million but returned a benefit Columbia University researchers calculated to be $230 million saved in that city alone and 2,055 “quality-adjusted life years gained.”

“I really think we are at a golden moment, a turning point,” Arason says. “The technology is here, and only getting cheaper. They are doing these things in Europe. If we start with what Canadians can buy into—better regulations, safer roads, getting higher-risk drivers off the road—we can change things by 2035.

“I know in my heart we can get there: Zero fatalities.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.