Ask Pat: Safety Dictator

Nicole asks—

Since your wonderful idea of a 30 km/h urban speed limit has drawn some ire, what other controversial things might you do to make our roads safer if you were made Dictator of BC for, say, a year? (I am guessing that photo radar is very high on the list, if not number one.)

Ire!? If an idea doesn’t draw ire from some sector, it is probably not worth even discussing. You may have heard some ire, I heard a lot of people saying its about time. Just this week, there were articles in Price Tags (Vancouver’s best Urbanism portal), there have been great results out of Toronto on their speed reduction program, and Seattle has joined the fray. I even took this photo at the Janette Sadik-Khan talk in Vancouver on Tuesday night:JSK20

Ire be damned, I want our streets to be safer. As JSK herself says: “When you challenge the status quo, it pushes back. Hard.”

I like the tone of your question, however. What would I do if I was Dictator for a year and was able to do whatever I wanted to make roads safer? Not sure I could get it all done in a year, but Dictators have armies to do their bidding, right?

Photo radar has it’s use. The Pattullo Bridge is a perfect example of a 50km/h road where everyone goes 80km/h and the resultant accidents are incredibly dangerous for other bridge users. It also reduces the inferred safety of the bridge, and is used as a primary reason for replacement. With careful application and an emphasis on safety (as opposed to punitive punishment in places where poor road design encourages speeding), photo radar has a role.

Look at this stupid road. Nothing here tells you to go 60km/h, except the sign. Of course everyone goes 80
Look at this stupid road. Nothing here, not the >3.5m lanes, not the generous shoulder and fixed divider, not the wide-open sight lines, nothing tells you to go 60km/h, except the sign. Of course everyone goes 80 or faster. A silly and punitive place to put Photo Radar, but dollars to donuts, the first place it would be installed.

I also think intersection cameras have a role. There are some in New West, and ICBC and the Integrated Road Safety Unit have a program to support them. However, they seem to concentrate on the red-light runners, likely because it is the easiest thing to enforce with a camera. I’m just as concerned about illegal turns, failing to yield to pedestrians, and entering intersections you have no possible way of exiting in order to “beat a light cycle”. With all the talk of distracted pedestrians and dark clothing, it is a pretty important point that the majority of pedestrian fatalities are caused by the driver failing to yield right of way in an intersection.

To make roads safer for cyclists, I would start by implementing (almost all) the recommendations that the Ontario Coroner released a couple of years ago after investigating cycling deaths in the province. I wrote a long piece on this once, but in summary: build safe infrastructure for cyclists, improve education for school students and all drivers, pass a 3-foot rule, and so on. We already have a pretty good idea what works, this isn’t radical or anything surprising. All that is lacking is the politcial will to make it happen.

The next big step would be nothing less than a complete re-writing of the design standards for urban streets. This is major part of Janette Sadik-Khan’s thesis for road safety. The existing standards for road design, paint markings, signs, and other treatments are from a different era, and were developed with the desire to make driving through our cities as efficient as possible, with only a nod to driver safety. That the “efficient movement” of cars makes the environment for all other road users less safe does not seem to be addressed.

JSK points out the American road design bible (“Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices”) has more than 800 pages of diagrams and plans describing the standards, 800 pages in which not a single pedestrian is shown. This book (along with it’s Canadian version) needs to be thrown away.

The good news is that there is already a lot of work being done on a better book to replace it. The National Association of City Transportation Officials has a go-to book called “The Urban Street Design Guide” That needs to become the standard, not the alternative. We can no longer use a 1950s guide book to adapt our 1920s streets for 2015 users. Time to challenge the status quo.

This probably exceeds the authority of the Dictator, but I would also change the laws to make cars safer. This engineering work is being done primarily in Europe, and some of it is becoming mainstream, but we can and should make more changes sooner. This includes a suite of things: better crush zones in front bumpers; softer hood materials with larger energy-absorbing gaps between sheetmetal and hardpoints; use of active cushioning (airbags); injury-reducing body shape geometry; larger windows with smaller pillars to improve driver visibility; active and passive collision avoidance systems.

While we are at it, we can add regular vehicle inspection to assure these systems work, and have not been messed with. There is no place in the urban environment for the suite of modifications that make automobiles unsafe for the people sharing the environment: trucks lifted to ridiculous heights, bull and grill guards, black tinted windows and lights, etc. I know that this is a radical idea in a society where many people consider their car an extension of their personality, and anything that impacts the design of their car would be seen as squelching freedom of expression.

Talking about Freedom of Expression, I am a keen follower of the move to change the language of traffic crashes. Read your local newspaper about a pedestrian being killed by a driver, and the headline is usually some form of “Pedestrian killed by car”. The events are always referred to immediately as “accidents”, which makes them sound inevitable, something that just happens, and presumes there is no fault (and, by inference, nothing we can do about it).

We can change how we value public space and our expectation of pedestrian safety by simply changing our language. “Pedestrian hit by driver of car” makes it clear there are two people in the transaction, not a person and an inanimate object. “Collision” and “incident” are both better terms than “accident” until the police and ICBC have an opportunity to determine the cause of the collision (inattentive driving? texting while walking? bad street design? non-functional brakes?). I think words mean something, and the words we use frame the discussion we will have, and we need to have a better discussion, because people are getting killed and we should have no tolerance for it.

Boy, I really sounded like a Dictator there, eh?

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