When we get behind the wheel of a car, most of us don’t think much of the physics of what we are doing.
The average U.S. car weighs over 4,000 pounds, having gotten steadily larger and faster over the years as car manufacturers have designed and marketed higher-margin SUVs and light trucks in place of sedans. The increasing size, weight, and speed of vehicles makes them deadlier in crashes, particularly to those outside of cars. A pedestrian hit by a vehicle has a 10% chance of death if the car was moving at 20 mph; but a 50% chance of dying at 40 mph and a 90% chance of dying at 60 mph.
Further, we live in a society that over the last century has constructed its built environment almost entirely around prioritizing the access and speed of motor vehicles. Traffic agencies bulldozed lively walkable downtowns and replaced them with highways and wide arterials. Local zoning codes force businesses and homes to be spread apart, and mandate enormous amounts of off-street parking for every new home and business, ensuring that most of us require a car for almost all trips, whether it’s to go to school, work, or shopping. Accordingly, driving for many of us is an extension of our bodies — a necessary daily function that we don’t put much more thought into than walking around.
This disconnect between the reality of piloting a multi-thousand pound vehicle at incredible speeds and our experience of it as a smooth, comfortable mobility option often results in tragedy and death.
Motor vehicle fatalities in Connecticut have risen dramatically since the pandemic, echoing a trend that we’ve seen across the country. About 300 people are killed annually on Connecticut’s streets by motor vehicles, and about 100 times as many people (roughly 30,000) suffer injuries severe enough to warrant hospital admission.
Nationally, these figures are roughly 40,000 deaths and 3.4 million injuries per year. The U.S. is an outlier among developed countries in the number of deaths that we tolerate on our roads, with a death rate 2 to 3 times that of similarly wealthy countries. The human cost of this carnage leaves no one untouched: almost everyone knows at least one person killed by a vehicle, not to mention millions of others who suffer from life-altering consequences like paralysis and traumatic brain injuries.
If we truly care about saving lives and preventing injuries, we need to change the mindset by which we view the act of driving. Car manufacturers and governments have spent decades designing a transportation system that makes driving as convenient and easy as possible: with fast accelerating cars, wide roads, easily available free parking, and signal timing designed to minimize delay for motorists. This ease and convenience create an illusion of safety which leads to more dangerous driving. Wider roads make it easier to speed without fear of hitting a curb or the next car over. A lack of visual clutter encourages speeding and distraction and is why many drivers feel comfortable texting while driving. The expectation that driving should be a seamless user experience leads to increased speeds, less attention, and frustration at the mildest of delays.
By contrast, when drivers face situations that feel “dangerous” or uncomfortable—whether due to narrower travel lanes, curving roads, visible obstacles like bollards and roundabouts, and physical complexity in the environment from the presence of a lively streetscape and people walking and biking—they begin to more accurately perceive their surrounding environment and the dangers that they pose as the operator of a motor vehicle.
More stressful driving situations counterintuitively increase safety by reducing driver comfort and thus increasing attention and lowering speeds.
By recognizing this dynamic, we can break ourselves out of the deadly loop of ever-increasing deaths and injuries that are the result of continuing to cater to the need to improve the “driver experience.” Traffic engineers should design streets with safety and accessibility for all users as their primary goal, not vehicle throughput and “level of service.” We need to see slowing cars down through traffic calming measures and speed cameras as a worthy goal rather than an unnecessary annoyance for drivers. There are many more important things in life than making driving and parking as easy and fast as possible, and we need to shift our mindset to promote other values in our built environment, like safety, walkability, and environmental sustainability.
Dice Oh is a resident of Stamford with a strong interest in housing abundance and sustainable transportation. He is a member of the Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.