Collision course: why are cars killing more and more pedestrians?

Guardian Technology 03 Oct 2019 05:00
Illustration: Bratislav Milenković/The Guardian
Main image: Illustration: Bratislav Milenković/The Guardian

In 2010, the small community of specialists who pay attention to US road safety statistics picked up the first signs of a troubling trend: more and more pedestrians were being killed on American roads. That year, 4,302 American pedestrians died, an increase of almost 5% from 2009. The tally has increased almost every year since, with particularly sharp spikes in 2015 and 2016. Last year, 41% more US pedestrians were killed than in 2008. During this same period, overall non-pedestrian road fatalities moved in the opposite direction, decreasing by more than 7%. For drivers, roads are as safe as they have ever been; for people on foot, roads keep getting deadlier.

Through the 90s and 00s, the pedestrian death count had declined almost every year. No one would have confused the US for a walkers’ paradise – at least part of the reason fewer pedestrians died in this period was that people were driving more and walking less, which meant that there were fewer opportunities to be struck. But at least the death toll was shrinking. The fact that, globally, pedestrian fatalities were much more common in poorer countries made it possible to view pedestrian death as part of an unfortunate, but temporary, stage of development: growing pains on the road to modernity, destined to decrease eventually as a matter of course. The US road death statistics of the last decade have blasted a hole in that theory. (A similar trend has been observed with regards to the country’s cyclists: a recent analysis found that cyclist fatalities decreased through the 80s, 90s and 00s, but since 2010 have increased 25%, with 777 cyclists killed in 2017.)

The possibility of making pedestrians safer is a welcome one, not least because walking is so undeniably good. Walking boosts physical and mental health, draws communities together and produces no carbon emissions. But there are good reasons to be sceptical about the promises made by the proselytisers of the high-tech car future. Car companies swear they are here to help – by selling us products that hardly ever hit anyone or anything. But the truth is that this promise is, at best, a distraction. In fact, much of our discourse around cars, self-driving or otherwise, is less about transforming the status quo than maintaining it, obscuring paths to progress exactly when we need them most, and leaving pedestrians right in the line of fire.

Ask a room full of road safety experts what is causing pedestrian fatalities to increase and most will admit that, well, they are not exactly sure. Every time a car hits a pedestrian, it represents the intersection of a vast number of variables. At the level of those involved, there is the question of who is distracted, reckless, drunk. Zooming out, there are factors such as the design and condition of the road, the quality (or absence) of a marked pedestrian crossing, the speed limit, the local lighting, the weight and height of the car involved. In a crash, all these variables and more converge at high speed in real-world, non-laboratory conditions that make it hard to isolate the influence of each variable.

More fundamentally, the US is the country in the world most shaped, physically and culturally, by the presumption that the uninterrupted flow of car traffic is an obvious public good, one that deserves to trump all others in the road planning process. Many of its younger cities are designed almost entirely around planning paradigms in which pedestrians were either ignored or factored only as nuisances. Cars move fast and are heavy and hard; humans on foot move slower and are made of flesh and bone. “The layperson can realise, if they think about it for a minute, that if you want to keep people safe, you have to design streets differently,” says Dumbaugh. “You have to slow the cars down. You have to recognise the reality of road users who aren’t in cars. You have to design roads so people in cars take notice of their fellow road users. But these basic realisations aren’t things the US transportation system knows or integrates into practice. And so people keep getting killed.”

Over the past decade, as the American pedestrian’s plight has worsened, global car manufacturers have stepped forward with news of a supposedly game-changing innovation, one that might at last improve the fate of those who want to travel on foot. This innovation has nothing to do with re-engineering roads, regulating SUV design, investing in public transit or any other intervention that would require using the creaky levers of democratic politics. Instead, people just have to buy new cars.

At first glance, this all sounds like a long-overdue corrective to the car-first chauvinism that has made American roads so deadly. But none of the safety experts I spoke to were terribly excited about pedestrian avoidance technology. It wasn’t that they doubted it might save some pedestrian lives. Instead, their recurring concern was that it reflects an ongoing focus on individual shortcomings – on flawed drivers and walkers – and a neglect of flaws built in to the roads they are forced to use.

Of course, people can learn to understand new tools. More troubling is the fact that very little robust evidence has been available as to pedestrian avoidance systems’ real-world benefits. The organisations rating these systems do so based on tests conducted in laboratories and on test tracks, but it has not yet been reliably established how well these tests predict performance on actual roads, with real live pedestrians instead of crash test dummies (not to mention variable light and rain conditions).

The origin story of pedestrian avoidance systems has almost nothing to do with a desire to protect pedestrians. Instead, they grew out of a desire to make war more bloodless – or more bloodless for the US side, anyway. In 2004, the US Department of Defense announced a race, open to all comers. Entrants were asked to build a vehicle that could undertake a journey without immediate human input: no driver in the car, no remote control. Whoever’s vehicle made it through a 150-mile course in the Mojave desert first would win $1m.

Of course, in time-honoured Silicon Valley tradition, this simple profit motive was quickly swaddled in all manner of high-flying rhetoric about saving lives (of car users and pedestrians alike), saving cities and transforming transportation as we know it. “Every year that we delay this, more people die,” Anthony Levandowski, then of Google, told the New Yorker in 2013. At a 2016 press event, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, warned journalists who expressed doubts about self-driving cars – like the type that Tesla plans to sell – that they had blood on their hands. “If, in writing something that’s negative, you effectively dissuade people from using an autonomous vehicle, you’re killing people.”

The sight, to our contemporary eyes, of a car navigating without a human behind the steering wheel, is so viscerally strange – so sci-fi – that it can obscure the extent to which a self-driving car remains … a car. Engine, seats, wheels. Similarly, our contemporary sense that hi-tech disruption comes for all things can obscure the extent to which the world promised by autonomous cars is still a world full of cars. To the extent that the world’s roads and cities remain shaped around the worship of smooth car traffic flow, the laws of physics will continue to make them dangerous places for everyone, especially those not protected by a steel frame and airbags.

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