KPCC's special series on transportation.
Hosted by Susan Carpenter and Alonzo Bodden

Traffic accidents don't have to claim 100 lives each day

FILE: Two cars collide on S. Brand Blvd. in Glendale, California on a Saturday night.
FILE: Two cars collide on S. Brand Blvd. in Glendale, California on a Saturday night.
Photo by Chris Yarzab via Flickr Creative Commons

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For better or for worse, traffic is a dominant force in American life. As much as it enables a lifestyle where goods and services are delivered on demand, there are unintended and negative consequences, like traffic and the accidents that result from millions of cars on the road. What's the solution? We speak with Edward Humes, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation.”

KPCC: One of the chapters in your book is called Friday, the 13th. This was specifically, Friday, February 13, 2015. What happened on that day?

Humes: Sadly, what happened on that day was pretty much what happens every day. There were fatal car crashes every 15 minutes, a serious enough injury on the roads to send people to the emergency room every 12 seconds. There was an epic tragedy playing out on our streets and roads that we have become so blasé about it that we literally don’t notice it anymore.

What you did that was really beautiful and also horrifying was you personalized this. You took very individual stories from that day. Are there any that still haunt you?

The reason I chose February 13 was because of an accident I read about that day on the 5 freeway. Someone had been driving along in the evening. We’ve all seen this with a mattress tied on their roof of their truck. Nobody’s ever been able to identify whose mattress this was, because it came loose and landed in the fast lane.

A woman driving alone in her vehicle struck that mattress and there followed a high-speed pinball series of events where the bumpers are made of concrete and the balls rolling around are the cars that weigh 4,000 pounds each. There were a number of vehicles that ended up destroyed. It was a miracle that only one person was killed.

It struck me as so needless and so horrifying, and I contrast that with an event that happened right around that time which is a crash of a jetliner in Germany where the pilot deliberately crashed the plane. There was a complete and justifiable freakout about that.

We’re going to change the world and the way we fly because of that one event, and yet every day you have greater numbers of terrible harm being done to people in a single day that we just call accidents and shrug off as if they don’t really matter or as if that’s the price of doing business. It’s just the way it is. It’s not the way it is. It’s the way we’ve made it. We’ve literally engineered our roads and our cars to kill 100 people a day.

I think as Americans we like the idea of accidents. We don’t like the idea of thinking that all of these were preventable.

There's virtually no accidents. They’re all on purpose. I need a better term than that. But literally over 90 percent of the fatal crashes we see are from three things: Driving too fast, driving too drink and driving too distracted. None of those are accidents. It’s all either reckless or purposeful conduct by people who just forget that they’re driving 4,000-pound missiles at higher speeds than humans can actually react.

You quote the California Highway Patrol as saying something very interesting about how to get away with murder.

Well, there’s a lot of variations of that, but almost no one who is not intoxicated at the time and is involved in a fatal crash will be charged with any crime, much less murder. Very rare. Because our laws aren’t set up that way. Our laws assume it’s accidental. And there’s been a few prosecutions, but they’re almost always very minor. Generally, inflicting death by automobile is usually treated as a misdemeanor.

Another thing that you brought out that I thought was very fascinating was this blame shifting. Even when the car driver is clearly at fault, the blame shifting is to the pedestrian, the bicyclist. They shouldn’t have been there.

Oh yeah. Because the assumption is that the road belongs to the car and not to anyone else on it. Because they’re just in the way. They're slowing things down. I have this experience all the time. Now that I’m walking more, when you have the walk light and a green light, you can’t just enter the street because somebody’s turning right on red right into you. You have to look behind you because they won’t wait. We’ve completely changed our way of thinking and our laws have followed to empower cars and to cast pedestrians and bicycles and children playing into secondary roles.

If you’re going to wave your magic wand and make Vision Zero a reality, how do we do that?

The long term play is driverless cars. Putting robots in charge. I drove around in a Google car. There’s one car that follows the speed limit at all times. It’s the Google car. That’s why it gets rear ended periodically. It’s going to take those tens of thousands of deaths we have every year and turn them into at most hundreds. In the shorter term, we have the ability to not let drunks drive. That would eliminate a third of all fatalities on the freeway right there. If we must have phones in the car, voice command only should be allowed in a moving vehicle. That would solve another third of our deaths, at least.

And then the speed. How do you solve that?

We have cruise control. The car knows how fast you’re going. I have a phone app that’s free that tells me how fast I’m going at any time. Well, you just put the two together. You do not allow cars to exceed the speed limit. Period.