Who’s Overprotected? Street Conviviality

I sent a letter to the editor yesterday urging some new measures to improve pedestrian/cyclist/scooterist safety.  The occasion?  In one night, last Friday, three local people, one from each category, were killed when hit by a motorist.  And worst of all, all three motorists fled the scene, leaving the victims either laying in the roadway to be run over again, or laying off the road badly needing, but not getting, emergency assistance.  Two of the motorists were apprehended, due to great public diligence, and the third was known but was on the lam.

I made the point in that letter that the MADD approach — having the courts and police crack down a lot more — is already in place.  Cut, at least in the case of alcoholics, doesn’t seem to be a deterrent.  There are a lot of other driver infractions, less serious, that are also not being deterred by enforcement, primarily because 90% of police involvement is either after the collision, or in very contrived speed-traps, which must be away from truly urban driving conditions (intersections, pedestrians, merging driveways).

My suggestion was to get government to require all motor vehicles to have a device installed that would a) require the driver to identify him or herself (so those barred from driving would be stopped before getting the engine going), b) subject the driver to some kind of sobriety test, and c) track the driver through a GPS that would automatically detect infractions that would be subject to automatic fees (vs. fines that are much higher and subject to expensive due-process proceedings).  Such tracking would also move transportation planning from the medieval age of guess-work to one based on actual driver behaviour/demand.

I got to thinking, this morning, that there is another culprit: vehicle speed and design.  Because of private ownership of vehicles, in which each driver (pretty much) has his own vehicle, that vehicle has to be used for all kinds of trips, requiring this once-every-four-years-or-so purchase to meet an impossible list of varied trip requirements.  The result is a vehicle that is too large, fast, and ‘amenitied’ for the typical trip, but will meet each trip.  It’s like siting a new cottage: does it go just above the average water level, above the high-water mark for the previous year, or the high-water mark for the past 100 years?  Right.  It, like the car one buys, has to meet the most demanding conditions over its life (yes, the life of the car, not its period of ownership for the buyer, thanks to resale concerns).

So how does this get into overprotection?  Very simple.  Just as the car owner gets his car to have the qualities for all his thousands of different trips and ‘runs’ over a long period of time, so does the government get the occupants to benefit from supposedly high safety requirements.   The result is cars that protect passengers in a crash at highway speeds (a lot slower than the car, ironically, is capable of traveling).  This shell of metal and plastic might crumple strategically in a highway collision with another car of the same weight, but it is insufficient at both extremes: not enough if the other vehicle is either larger or going much faster, and overly rigid in a collision with something smaller and more delicate, like a human body, even at lower speeds legal in cities.

In other words, the car you and I drive is a threat to the people in built-up areas it shares the road with.  The driver is overprotected.  The result?  Those who travel in the presence of these cars have to counter the car’s overprotection with their own: either they avoid using such ‘vulnerable’ modes of travel, they change their routes to favour streets with little traffic, or their time of travel to avoid the worst traffic conditions.  Or if they are under the care of others, they will have their freedom of movement infringed.  The result is that the elderly are either housebound, or driving after the age when their driving skills are iffy.  And kids today, most agree, are overprotected.  They are kept indoors and are not even allowed to play in the front yard.  It is so bad that, if a child is struck, the parents rather than the driver is the object of public disdain.  Kids are getting not only obese but also not on good terms with the natural world, human and otherwise, as they move about only strapped into a car or in the tight grasp of an adult.

This calls for a world where cars are as shared as the roads, thanks to government licensing of carsharing organizations with vehicles that already have the driver-accountability devices installed and have a range of vehicles to better fit the variety of trip needs.  Such a scheme would create ideal conditions: city vehicles that are small, slow, and soft on the outside, as well as the inside; and drivers whose every move is recorded.  And with much more use of cars for ridesharing — thanks to both the car-tracking capability and much higher road/CO2/congestion fees that are coming — each driver will have several ‘back-seat drivers.’

The car isn’t the problem; our binding of each car to a particular driver is.   It produces too many cars, too frequent use of cars for trips short enough for walking or bicycle, too fast driving (speed gives cars their value), drivers who are accountable, and streets that are not convivial or conform to the city-purpose: “commerce without commotion.”

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