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Eradicating the Car Crash Like Smallpox

Recent high profile municipal road safety plans—Vancouver’s and New York City’s for example—have imported the ‘Vision Zero’ objective, a future in which no drivers or passengers or vulnerable road users like pedestrians and cyclists are injured or killed on the roads. Inevitably, discussion of this objective turned to the aspirational value of a utopian vision, which implied, of course, that it was impossible to achieve and unrealistic and, hence a nice idea, a catchy term, but out of reach. As trend lines in the early-motorized countries continue to show steady improvement demonstrably linked to specific changes, ‘Vision Zero’ visionaries are encountering less skepticism. Road Rules applauds these developments and all efforts to promote universal ‘buy in’ and hence motivate achievement. Thus we commend and recommend to our readers Cars vs People in the June 10, 2014 Maclean’s Magazine written by Brian Bethune. This article discusses the plan to end traffic fatalities in Canada by 2035 — No Accident: Eliminating Injury and Death on Canadian Roads, written by Neil Arason, a BC civil servant and road safety researcher. Vision Zero visionaries agree that with the possible exception of the self-driving car, there is no silver bullet for achieving zero road fatalities and injuries. Changes are needed in all three main contributing factors: driver behaviours and skills, road design, and vehicle design. Ultimately the sum total of these changes will continue to push the trend lines in the right direction—down—to zero. Debate tends to concentrate on the needed changes, their effectiveness and the way they combine to produce results. Mr. Arason, however, takes a slightly different approach by favouring the two ‘designable’ factors over the behavioural one. He is quoted as saying that, “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… is what will make Vision Zero conceivable and possible.” The development of Mr. Arason’s thesis makes for a stimulating article (and book, no doubt) but may not persuade everyone interested in the topic. The proposition that we may have reached the limit of controlling or minimizing the risky propensities of the “idiot behind the wheel” —to tire, to be distracted, to disobey the rules, etc. is undercut by the irresistible urge to continue advocating for changes in this area as well, such as lowering the permissible blood alcohol levels and raising the minimum age for starting Graduated Licensing programs. But so be it. Any way to advocating for such a vision is well worth exploring. One rationale commonly advanced for Vision Zero is the economic waste of road injuries and fatalities. Mr. Arason notes, “The annual economic carnage wreaked by car accidents, as estimated by Transport Canada: $63 billion.” This money pays for those who deal with the consequences of motor vehicle accidents: police, emergency responders, doctors and a host of other health care professionals, auto body shops, insurance agencies and brokers, lawyers, judges, and funeral directors. The dreadful disease smallpox, a plague upon humanity for thousands of years was declared to be eradicated in 2011. Likewise one day, the car crash.

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