Friday, May 14, 2010

The marginalization of traffic deaths and crashes

Charles Komanoff wrote a terrific piece on Streetsblog last week about the contrast between law enforcement's reaction to the terror of the failed bombing attempt in Times Square and how it responds to the terror of everyday carnage of people dying or getting injured in traffic crashes. The quote I like best is:

"Dangerous driving deemed devoid of murderous intent is okay; bicycles hitched to “security-sensitive” fences are not. Putting law-enforcement personnel on bloated “anti-terror” details is an appropriate use of police; assigning them to enforce traffic laws protecting pedestrians and bicyclists is not. “Narrow escapes” such as Saturday evening in Times Square merit blanket coverage; the everyday bullying of millions of walkers and hundreds of thousands of bike riders is, well, everyday."

Alex Doty posted a similar blog entry last month, pondering the ramifications if security decision makers cared as much about the impacts of distracted driving as they did about the feared impacts of the Icelandic volcano eruption, which cost the worldwide economy $130 million a day.  Why was it worth $130 million a day to prevent potential deaths from airlines, but it's tolerable to live with motor vehicle crashes that cost $230 billion a year or $630 million a day (2000 figure) in the United States and claim upwards of 33,000 lives and cause 5 million injuries annually?  U.S. policy doesn't tolerate a single airliner crashing or a terrorist succeeding ever, but it tolerates the equivalent of a terrorist killing 100 people a day in the number of people who die in daily motor vehicle crashes.   It reflects a decision that death by air flight and terror deserve a zero tolerance policy (and it largely works), but death or injury motor vehicles does not (the results speak for themselves).   It doesn't have to be that way; Sweden set an ambitious goal to reduce fatalities and serious injuries in motor vehicle crashes to zero, called Vision Zero.

The tolerance for motor vehicle crashes turned a new page recently.  Philadelphia's Police Department announced that they would no longer send police cruisers to respond to fender benders. While all incidents should be reported to 911 according to the Philadelphia Police Dept's website, if the crash involves vehicle damage only, officers will not be sent to the scene. While perhaps this rationale is from a budgetary point of view, it's a depressing reminder that traffic incidents are continually tolerated (marginalized!) as acceptable risks not worthy of police response, even when they are portenders of worse to come.  Brian Hickey wrote a great opinion editorial on the danger of giving aggressive drivers a free pass.  We asked the Police Department how its new policy would be applied to bicyclists and was told that every incident should continue to be reported to 911; that the dispatch operator will direct those involved about what to do.  If there are any injuries, police and medic response will be dispatched.

Always call 911 if you are in a traffic incident (or are harassed by someone), but you can also tell the Police Department about it or the response you experienced, by using the Bicycle Coalition's See Click Fix widget; all incidents reported on this online tool get sent directly as an email message to the Police District where the incident occurred.