Risky Driving

Why safer cars do not always mean safer roads

All of us who drive, or have been passengers in cars, remember a close call on the road that continues to haunt us.

A recent incident still leaves me in a cold sweat. I was driving on the Queen Elizabeth Way between Hamilton and Toronto, when I momentarily dozed off at the wheel. I was jolted awake by the vibrations of rumble strips. I pulled over just to get my heartbeat back to normal. Did those rumble strips save my life? I do not want to know what would have happened if they had not been there. So why aren’t these relatively inexpensive safety features on all major highways?

Neil Arason’s No Accident: Eliminating Injury and Death on Canadian Roads reminds us that Canada’s highways are a killing field. Consider that since 1950, more than 235,000 people have died on Canada’s roads and that from 1999 to 2008, “over 186,000 people were hospitalized due to serious injuries from traffic accidents [in Canada].” Vehicle accidents are still the major cause of death for young people between the ages of 15 and 24.

Arason’s book argues that a major reason for this level of carnage on our roads is that public policy does not make road and vehicle safety a high priority. How is it that we pay so little attention to the victims of road crashes? The author gives two main reasons: the first is that people do not die in large enough numbers at a time, and slip under the radar of national attention. Air crashes, rare as they are, attract considerably more attention and commensurate safety regulations.

The second reason is that traffic accidents are seen as caused mainly by human error, thus diminishing the need for more regulatory controls on car safety and road design. If we do not blame the intrinsic design of vehicles and roads, why bother with a problem we cannot fix? We simply live with the tragic fact that people make mistakes on the road.

Arason makes the case that we should not use human imperfection as an excuse not to aggressively make safer vehicles and better roads. After all, it is being done in other parts of the world. In Sweden, for example, they are constantly thinking of ways to increase the safety of their roads. Sweden uses what is called a Vision Zero traffic safety project, an idea enshrined in law that says “in every situation a person might fail, [but] the road system should not.” When people are hurt on the road, it is the obligation of the state to find out why and figure out ways to fix the problem. Australia is a leader in road safety, while the European Union is working toward a zero-fatality road system. American states such as Utah and Minnesota and cities including Chicago and Seattle are moving to decrease injuries and deaths on their roads with specific goals and timelines.

Canada, on the other hand, is trailing badly when it comes to road safety. According to Arason we rank 20th in the world in road fatalities. But with greater political resolve we could turn the tide and “eliminate one of this country’s greatest causes of human trauma, pain, and suffering as early as 2035.”

One does not have to get far into No Accident to realize that the author is not a fan of the automobile and is a great advocate of walking, cycling and public transit. He does a great job of demonizing the auto industry, blaming it for making unsafe cars, as well as for distorting our political system, violating anti-trust laws and gaining unfair government subsidies, to say nothing of damage to the environment. Arason’s case is bolstered by the recent news that GM sat on information for ten years about a defective ignition switch that kept air bags from deploying, killing as many as 303 people.

Cars and trucks have become so dangerous they are not only a danger to drivers and passengers, but to pedestrians and cyclists as well. As Arason states, “millions of Canadians fear for their safety, and the safety of their children, … a manifestation of the automobile’s inimical presence in our cities.” And he reminds us that over the last 25 years, more than 13,000 pedestrians and cyclists have been killed by motor vehicles.

Notwithstanding the seriousness of Arason’s position on the damaging effect of vehicles on our roads, he is rather selective on his use of trends and data. By any standards, traffic fatalities in Canada have been declining. According to Transport Canada, from 1990 to 2009, annual traffic fatalities have declined from 3,963 to 2,209, a drop of about 44 percent. Serious injuries are also down from 25,183 to 11,451, or 55 percent. Although fatalities per 100,000 people were 6.6 percent in 2009, the highest fatalities were in less populated provinces such as Saskatchewan (14.7), New Brunswick (8.8), Alberta (9.6), Northwest Territories (11.4), Prince Edward Island (8.5) and British Columbia (8.4). Ontario was relatively low at 4.1 deaths per 100,000 persons. According to Statistics Canada, 1,154 of the 2,011 traffic fatalities in 2009 were on rural roads. It seems we have a rural accident problem rather than an urban one.

Here is one of the most interesting statistics, supplied by the World Health Organization: we have about a third fewer deaths per 100,000 people compared to the United States. And as mentioned, Canada’s numbers have been turning around impressively. When we measure fatalities based not on population but on billions of vehicle kilometres travelled, we rank better than Denmark, the United States and France, and are comparable to Germany, Norway and Australia. I was surprised that none of these comparative numbers appear anywhere in No Accident, if only to give an overall picture of traffic trends in Canada.

That hardly means we should do no more than what we are doing, but let’s think about the causes of the tragedies on our roads. Although Arason would like to look away from driver blame, we cannot avoid considering human error. I believe that ignoring it weakens Arason’s overall position.

Let’s see what Transport Canada has to say about driver behaviour. After years of mandatory seatbelt laws, some people simply refuse to buckle up. Transport Canada’s objective is to get 95 percent of drivers to use seatbelts, and in the provinces and territories that are below that level we see higher levels of fatal accidents. The worst offenders are in the Yukon, with the lowest level of compliance at 78 percent. It is no surprise the territory has the highest levels of car fatalities. One exception is Saskatchewan, with both a high level of seatbelt use and high levels of road fatalities.

When I drive on our highways, I am still amazed by how aggressively people weave in and out of traffic. We know that 27 percent of fatalities involve speeding and that the young speed more. Here is where Arason is right about getting speeding levels under control. A 1 percent reduction in speed reduces the chances of fatal crashes by 5 percent. And we know what works in bringing speeding drivers to heel: cameras. There is plenty of evidence to back this up, yet we stubbornly refuse to use cameras more rigorously. During an 18-month pilot project launched in 2009 in the Montreal regions of Montérégie and Chaudière-Appalaches involving red-light cameras, vehicle speed declined by an average 14 kilometres per hour and extreme speeding was down 99 percent. Traffic cops cannot be everywhere, but speed cameras can.

Let’s not forget who does the speeding: not the car, but its driver. There are those who drive under the influence of alcohol, those who use legal and illegal drugs, older drivers who are prone to more accidents, and a whole range of distracting devices and activities such as cell phones, texting while driving, eating while driving and so on. And how do we keep drivers off the road if they are fatigued (something of which I am too well aware) or in a bad state of mind? All of these take personal judgement and a sense of responsibility.

It is not that Arason ignores these issues, but he does not give them enough weight. Although he wants to toughen the laws against driving drunk, he concludes that “simply putting more words and provisions into a traffic code and expecting that alone to achieve good results is hardly wise.” The implication is that if we cannot improve human behaviour, let’s concentrate on making cars and roads safer.

Arason essentially blames the invention of the automobile for all tragedies on the road starting in the early 1900s. He harkens back to an idyllic age before the car when “the streets had belonged mostly to the people who walked and cycled on them.” He even blames the car for reversing the health gains won in fighting diseases such as typhoid and diphtheria.

But the world’s cities before the automobile were hardly a haven of peace, health and tranquility. In the 1700s carts and coaches were named the leading cause of death in the streets of London. According to Tom Vanderbilt, in New York in 1867, horses were killing an average of four pedestrians a week. Streets were chaotic, and when bicycles were introduced, they just added to the mayhem with fights breaking out between cyclists and wagons. The introduction of the automobile at least forced some traffic sanity on a confusing and dangerous environment.

I do not wish to diminish the added tragedies with the introduction of the car, but the automobile brought to millions tremendous economic advantages in terms of freedom of mobility and prosperity. All advances in technology bring risks as well as rewards; just consider the risks and deaths caused by the introduction of coal and fossil fuels, medical innovations, along with air, rail and sea transportation. We cannot eliminate all risk; our task is to minimize the costs.1

Few would deny that automobiles are safer today, with mandatory seatbelts, air bags, anti-lock braking systems, rear cameras, better crash avoidance systems, better headlights, crumple zones, tempered glass that does not shatter, tire pressure monitoring, and improved steering and suspension. Cars coming on the market also have the capacity to anticipate accidents with sophisticated monitoring systems. The modern automobile would have been unrecognizable just a few years ago.

So, why haven’t these safety features shown up more in cutting down deaths and injuries? The answer here is speed. We stubbornly continue to drive too fast, diminishing the effectiveness of safety features. To understand why, we have to better understand human behaviour and how to modify it.

There is a growing literature in the area of how humans react when things get safer. What do skydivers do when equipment gets better? They take bigger risks, especially younger skydivers. We also find the same phenomenon with NASCAR drivers. Make cars safer and they choose to tailgate and drive at greater speeds. It seems it is no different for the rest of us when we get behind the wheel. SUV drivers think they are safer, but evidence shows they are not, simply because they drive faster. This insight has come to be known as the Peltzman effect, named after Sam Peltzman, an economist at the University of Chicago who wrote about it in 1975. How ironic that as we feel safer in our cars, we tend to be a menace to others on the road. Another name for this phenomenon is risk homeostasis. The theory here is that people have a target level of risk and making certain activities safer leads to riskier behaviour and vice versa.2 A leading proponent of this idea is Gerald Wilde, a psychologist at Queen’s University.

Unfortunately, Arason chooses to give this line of thinking only a few lines in his book, depriving his readers of valuable insight into why greater safety features seem to have paid such modest dividends. He goes so far as to claim there is no evidence that risk homeostasis even exists. It is controversial, yet economists hold that when the price of a product or service falls, demand rises even if that activity is inherently dangerous. Consider that the incidence of HIV/AIDS has not improved in some countries even with the wider use and distribution of condoms. Instead, some users tend to engage in riskier sex. Obesity can also be partly explained by better medications for hypertension and cholesterol, lowering the cost of carrying around more weight. When things are made safer, we tend to engage in riskier activities.

Behavioural economics tells us we do not always act rationally. We know that large trucks are a danger on the road, but we also tend to drive recklessly around them. Steven Levitt, the economist of Freakonomics fame, has also shown that expensive child car-seats do not work any better than simple lap-and-shoulder belts. Arason spoke to many highway and health experts in his book, but I wish he had also interviewed a few leading behavioural economists.

However, an area where we can make considerable progress is in road safety, and here Arason is on firmer ground. One idea is better highway design, including more divided highways that separate opposite-flow traffic. What about improving the paint and lighting markings on our roads? Lines tend to disappear in a light rain or snow, leaving drivers to estimate where they are. My fondest wish is to see intelligent traffic lights that adjust to the flow of traffic.

This leaves me wondering how Canada’s road engineers are spending their time, since, as mentioned before, some European countries are way ahead of us. Arason reminds us that the UK has been able to lower death and injury rates by simple measures such as anti-skid pavement, better signage, speed-limit changes and dedicated single-use lanes. And let’s not forget those rumble-vibration markings. I know I will not.

Arason is a big believer in encouraging more cycling and walking and better public transit. No one can argue with that, but in many of our major cities, encouraging more bikes on roads that already barely meet the needs of current traffic is inviting heavier congestion and more accidents. The same can be said of public transit in major cities. We all want to get drivers out of their cars, but that cannot be done unless we make public transit more appealing and efficient.

No Accident follows in the tradition of Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile, written in 1965, but much has changed since then. Cars are safer and there is not the public backlash against an auto industry that once fought every safety feature. Soon we will see a day when cars will be self-driving, but that will not be the utopia some believe either, with another slew of unintended consequences down the road.

Let’s be clear, not all of us lower our level of safety when auto safety features are introduced. Behavioural adaptation challenges the foundations of injury prevention strategies. Vehicle safety technology will increase because consumers want it. Industry will deliver better and safer cars, but they cannot make driving completely accident free because we can never fully compensate for the idiot behind the wheel.

  1. The late Aaron Wildavsky, an innovative thinker in the field of risk analysis, made the argument in his book Searching for Safety that risk taking actually makes life safer. His main point was that looking for too much safety may endanger us. 

  2. Economist Armen Alchian once proposed that one way to reduce speed and accidents on the road was to make cars very unsafe by fixing a spear to the steering wheel. All in jest of course, but the point stands.