Tell it, Sue Baker! Car crashes are not accidents

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“It was an accident!”, said the driver. Photo by Katherine Hodges. 

Because of Hurricane Sandy, the New York Times paywall is down so I’m reading every article I can, starting with “Safety Lessons from the Morgue“:

As she explains it, “To say that a car crash is an accident is to say it’s a matter of chance, a surprise, but car crashes happen all the time, and the injuries that people sustain in those crashes are usually predictable and preventable.”

Another car crash-related excerpt from the article about Sue Baker, injury prevention researcher extraordinaire:

In one of her recent projects, Baker looked at another aspect of highway deaths. The study, which Baker prepared with David Swedler, a doctoral candidate, examined more than 14,000 fatal crashes involving teenage drivers. They found that male drivers were almost twice as likely as female drivers to have had high levels of alcohol in their blood and were also more likely to have been speeding and driving recklessly. Significantly, 38 percent of 15-year-old drivers, both male and female, were found to have been speeding, but by age 19, female speeders dropped to 22 percent, while male speeders remained steady at 38 percent.

Those differences, Baker says, suggest that boys and girls should not automatically receive the same driver training — and that boys should perhaps receive their license at an older age than girls. “Males might scream foul,” Baker acknowledges, “but let them.”

Yes, let them. It’s too easy to get a driver’s license in this country.  I love her style:

In 1979, at a Department of Transportation public hearing about the dangers faced by truck drivers, Baker angrily explained, “Isn’t it time we did some crash testing with trucks and dummies, rather than with drivers themselves?” Later, according to Baker, the trucking industry hired a researcher to try to discredit her driver-safety studies. Unable to uncover problems with her work, he eventually gave up and called to tell her about his assignment. [emphasis added]

Not everything is perfect with injury prevention studies, though.

In the mid-1970s, [Sam] Peltzman did research on highway fatalities that suggested that mandatory safety features like seat belts and padded dashboards actually encouraged people to drive less cautiously.

Tom Vanderbilt talked about that in “Traffic“, which is basically my favorite transportation book, even mentioning Mr. Peltzman. Flip to page 181 to read it. Vanderbilt lists all of the different labels for that behavior:

  • the Peltzman effect
  • risk homeostasis
  • risk compensation
  • offset hypothesis

He summarizes: “What they are saying, to crudely lump all of them together, is that we change our behavior in response to perceived risk, without even being aware that we are doing so”. But Sue has a response:

Baker acknowledges that there may be some individuals in cars with anti-lock brakes, for example, who may not apply the brakes as soon as they did with the old brakes. But she insists there is no evidence that better brakes or air bags have encouraged recklessness — that they have in fact saved many thousands of lives. “What concerns me,” she says, “is that these spurious arguments are used by companies to bolster their opposition to beneficial safety regulation.

I think it’s safe to say now that she’s a personal hero of mine. But way, there’s just one more thing!

As she talked about what still needed to be done, her voice was tinged with anger: “Buildings need to be designed so it’s not so easy to fall down stairs. All new homes should have sprinklers. Traffic lights should be timed for pedestrians, not to move as many cars as possible through an intersection.

Yep. Exactly what we don’t do. We make ‘em wait. And wait. Without even telling people the traffic signal’s even acknowledged their presence.

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About Steven Vance

Enthusiast for urbanism, bicycling as transportation, and open data. Building a bicycle culture in Chicago.